The Early Development of the Isle of Dogs by Ian McBrayne

Isle of Dogs 1747

The Isle of Dogs in John Rocque’s 1747 map. Source: Wikipedia

At this week’s session, Ian McBrayne gave a talk on the early development of the Isle of Dogs.  The name first appears in 1520.  It’s origin is unknown; it may well be where Henry VIII kept his hunting dogs, though there are plenty of other suggestions, including that it is a corruption from Isle of Dykes.  The area, though referred to locally as “the island”, is actually a peninsula and was originally part of the extensive Stepney Marsh.  It was surrounded by a river wall, probably dating from around the 12th century to drain the marsh and prevent incursion from the river.  From about the same period the drained land was farmed by the owners of Pomfret Manor (later Chapel House), for centuries the only substantial house on the island.  A horse ferry is known to have operated from at least the 14th century, from the foot of the island across to Greenwich.  By the northern landing stage, the present day Ferry House pub started as a starch factory in the 17th century.  Starch was a by-product of the milling of wheat which was carried out, along with the crushing of oilseed, by twelve windmills built along the western riverbank in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The mills gave the district its name: Millwall.  Although there must have been some housing, for example for farmers and fishermen, there is no firm evidence, and there was certainly no other significant development before 1800.

The beginning of the 19th century saw the creation of the West India Docks at the north of the island.  In 1812, a new company took over the ferry and, as a condition of its enabling act, upgraded the island’s two main roads (now Westferry Road and East Ferry Road).  Both developments paved the way for rapid change on the island.  The mills were progressively replaced by shipbuilding and other heavy industry along the western riverside.  Docks and industrial premises created a need for workers’ housing and other facilities such as shops, schools, churches and pubs.  These grew up piecemeal across Millwall in response to demand.  But on the east of the island the developer William Cubitt bought a large parcel of land, letting out riverside sites mainly for shipbuilding and developing in the hinterland the residential area now known as Cubitt Town.  Millwall Docks were built in the centre of the island in the 1860s.  Later in the 19th century, as ships became too large to be built on the narrow river, shipyards closed and were replaced by other industry such as lighter engineering, chemical works and food processing plants.  One of the island’s largest employers at the end of the century was Morton’s confectionery and jam making and food canning factory, moved from Aberdeen in 1872.

West India Docks 1802

West India Docks in 1802 by William Daniell. Source: Wikipedia

Employees at Morton’s started Millwall football club in  1885.  Other late-century developments included the arrival of the Millwall Extension Railway in 1870, the laying out of Island Gardens in 1895 and the start of work on the foot tunnel to Greenwich in 1899.  By the end of the century, the only significant areas which were not built up were the sites of the present Millwall and Mudchute parks.  The rest of the island was characterised by working class housing squeezed between docks and industrial premises.  The environment was grimy and the people were poor, but there was little crime and the relative isolation of the peninsula made for a close-knit community whose members appear in general to have been content with their lot.

Ian’s presentation ended at that point.  There is a further story to be told of the island in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Term dates for 2017 confirmed

At the committee meeting today, we confirmed the dates for the next two terms as:

Spring Term: Monday 16th January to Monday 20th March (inclusive)
Summer Term: Monday 8th May to Monday 17th July (excluding Bank Holiday Monday 29th May)

The summer term dates reflect the fact that there is only one Monday between the Easter and May Day Bank Holidays next year.  If we started immediately after Easter, we would have two bank holiday breaks, one after only one session.  It seemed better to start later and only have one interruption.

The Battle of Jutland: Winners and Losers by Roy Fenton

The outcome of the Battle of Jutland on 31st May and 1st June 1916 was controversial at the time, with both sides claiming it as a victory.  Losses in the British Grand Fleet were considerably heavier than in the German High Seas Fleet, but afterwards the commander of the latter was convinced that his numerically inferior force could not win a major fleet action.  This had major consequences for the future conduct of the war and the eventual defeat of Germany.


Battle of Jutland maps. Adapted from File:Jutland1916.jpg, a work of the Department of History at the United States Military Academy, which is in the public domain. You can click the image to enlarge it.

Great Britain had a large empire in 1914 and, as the first nation to industrialise, was highly dependent on overseas trade for raw materials and foodstuffs.  To support this trade it had a massive fleet of merchant ships, in the region of 50% of the world’s total tonnage in 1914.  To protect its trade routes, it also had the world’s largest navy, deliberately maintained at a level more powerful than the two next largest navies.  Although its overseas territories were far smaller, Germany was also dependent on imports of food and raw materials.  And driven largely by Kaiser Wilhelm’s vanity, it built a large navy which was seen as a direct challenge to the Royal Navy.

When war broke out in 1914, the Royal Navy’s overall strategy was to protect Britain’s international trade routes and also to deny Germany its imports by maintaining a distant blockade of German ports.  The British public, whose pride in the Royal Navy was immense, expected the Grand Fleet to sail forth immediately and challenge the High Seas Fleet to battle and repeat the outcome of Trafalgar.  However, the vast changes in naval weaponry over the intervening century made this unwise.  In particular, the development of mines, submarines and torpedoes provided new and potentially deadly weapons, and there was real fear of their power, even against immensely well armed and armoured battleships and battlecruisers.

Germany would like to have challenged the numerically much stronger Royal Navy, and lifted the blockade, and its tactics were to reduce British naval strength by meeting smaller detachments which it hoped it could defeat.  Hence raids were mounted on British coastal towns (Lowestoft, Scarborough, Hartlepool) in the hope that part of the British force would sally forth and give battle.  The excursion of the High Seas Fleet into the North Sea on 31st May 1916 was another such operation, with the intention of attacking Sunderland.

British naval intelligence was routinely breaking German codes and knew that the High Seas Fleet was sailing.  Admiral Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, was alerted, and sailed his main battle fleet from Scapa Flow.  In the North Sea it would rendezvous with the smaller but faster battlecruiser force led by Admiral Beatty.

Admiral David Beatty by Sir John Lavery, 1917. Source: Wikipedia.

Admiral David Beatty by Sir John Lavery, 1917. Source: Wikipedia.

The battlecruisers were first to contact German ships, meeting the equivalent force on the German side, led by Admiral Hipper.  In a very one-sided battle Hipper’s five ships scored many more hits on Beatty’s six, two of which, Inflexible and Queen Mary, blew up with the loss of the great majority of their crews.  Beatty’s flagship Lion was repeatedly hit and was fortunate to escape the same fate.  Beatty famously blamed the construction of his ships, which to save weight and ensure a higher speed than contemporary battle ships, had reduced armour plating.  In fact, it is almost certain that risky armament handling, condoned by authority in order to give a higher rate of fire, was responsible.  Cordite was stored in gun turrets, and a hit on a turret caused a fire which could rapidly spread to the ship’s magazine, resulting in a catastrophic ignition of tons of explosives.

Beatty’s remaining ships turned north towards Jellicoe’s much larger force, and were followed by Hipper’s ships and the rest of the High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer.  The latter was disconcerted, to say the least, when contact was made with the entire Grand Fleet.  The latter’s gunnery proved far more effective than that of Beatty’s ships, sinking the modern battle cruiser Lutzow and inflicting such damage on the Seydlitz that only with immense difficulty was she brought back to Wilhelmshafen.  However, a third British battle cruiser, Invincible, blew up at this stage of the battle.

Despite this, Scheer realised he was outnumbered and outgunned: the most modern British battle ships had 15-inch guns in comparison to the German’s 12-inch.  Scheer therefore ordered a retreat, during which he sent his torpedo boats against the British battleships.  Jellicoe, who has been described as a born pessimist, feared such an attack and turned his ships away from the torpedo boats.  By reducing their size as targets, this helped avoid any torpedo hits.  But in hindsight turning towards the attack would also have done so, and would have maintained his contact with the enemy’s main units, almost certainly causing much more damage to the High Seas Fleet.  However, in poor visibility and with dusk approaching, Jellicoe lost contact, and in any case he was very wary of an action at night.  He was proved right, as attacks on the German ships by British destroyers during the night very costly but relatively ineffective, and Scheer was allowed to make his escape.

Reinhard Scheer.  Source: Wikipedia

Reinhard Scheer. Source: Wikipedia

The Germans were quick to claim a major victory, and maintained that the battle had proved the Royal Navy was not invincible.  The response of the British was slow and half-hearted, and it was widely assumed that Jutland represented a major defeat.  When Germany finally admitted the scale of its losses, its credibility was damaged, and British accounts made the telling point that a victorious fleet does not beat a rapid retreat from the scene of battle.

The truth was that British command of the North Sea was still absolute.  The Grand Fleet remained much the stronger and ready to put to sea again if necessary within hours of its return to port.  New and more powerful battlecruisers about to be commissioned would make up for its losses.  Some of the German ships, especially Seydlitz, had been badly mauled in the main fleet action, and would be out of commission for months.

Realising that defeating the Grand Fleet in a surface action was not a realistic possibility, and with stalemate on the Western Front, Germany decided that its only option was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was calculated that strangling Britain’s trade would knock it out of the war, and do so before the USA could mobilise its forces and enter the fray on the Allied side.  Although its impact on shipping was initially very serious, the renewed U-boat campaign annoyed the USA to the extent that diplomatic relations were almost immediately broken off and within three months it declared war on Germany.  Convoying of merchant ships was belatedly introduced, stemming losses and allowing mainly British ships to carry the US army to Europe.  The reinforcements thus brought to the western front were an important factor in the eventual allied victory.  However, so was the near-starvation brought to Germany, including its armed forces, by the British blockade which was in no way reduced by its losses at the Battle of Jutland.

Thus, whilst the battle could not be regarded as an outright victory for Great Britain, it yet represented a major defeat for Germany.  There is a strong case that, with the effect it had on German strategy and hence the war’s outcome, Jutland was the most decisive battle of the First World War.

From Hoys to Cunarders: A History of Maritime Rotherhithe by Stephen Humphrey

The Howland Great Wet Dock in 1705, before its name changed to Greenland Dock and it was extended. Source: Portcities website.

Rotherhithe’s Howland Great Wet Dock in 1705, before its name changed to Greenland Dock and it was extended. Source: Portcities website.

The Port of London Study Group was delighted to welcome back Stephen Humphrey as visiting speaker. His talk was entitled ‘From Hoys to Cunarders: A History of Maritime Rotherhithe’, of which he has encyclopedic knowledge and a vast library of pictures and information.

His talk and slide show, partly using maps drawn at different times, as well as paintings and photos showed the growth of the peninsula and gave a complete overview of the development of Rotherhithe, until the 1700’s the poor relation in importance to Greenwich and Deptford, but then the site of the first London wet docks. It became an important centre for ship-building, repair and breaking, around which many trades developed locally to serve the growing docks and shipping: rope-making, ships’ biscuits and dock labour, as well as tanneries and food production. There were also many pubs for thirsty dock labourers and other workers.

The late 19th century saw the lengthening of Greenland dock and the capacity of Rotherhithe to take much bigger 14,000 ton ships and by the early 20th century it was handling large amounts of timber from Canada and the Baltic states as well as coal barges for gas works and coal yards.

1925 postcard showing the Cunard ship Alaunia, one of the Cunard A-Class ships that were based at Greenland Dock

1925 postcard showing the Cunard ship Alaunia, one of the Cunard A-Class ships that were based at Greenland Dock

Rotherhithe’s docks were heavily bombed in the Blitz but carried on until the late 1960’s when Tilbury took over timber packaging.

Between the Mayflower, tea clippers, the Fighting Temeraire, Bellepheron, the first steam warship to operate in the Pacific, the sea cadets, emigration ships to Canada, coal barges and Cunard liners, Rotherhithe’s maritime history is a rich one and we appreciated Stephen’s lively illustrated description and account of it.

As Rotherhithe commemorates the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower to the New World on Thanksgiving Day, Stephen is also speaking about this at St Mary’s Church SE16 on Thursday 24th at 19.45.

Father Joe Williamson (1895-1988) MBE, the Prostitutes’ Padre by Fran Bulwer

Father Joe Williamson

Father Joe Williamson

Fran Bulwer talked to us about ‘Father Joe’, as he was known to his East End parishioners.  He made his name and reputation as a High Church Anglican priest towards the end of his working life as a clergyman when he, a Poplar lad from a very poor home, came ‘home’ to be the parish priest of the Church of St Paul Dock Street in Shadwell in 1952.

Stepney and Shadwell had had a dire reputation for slum housing, crime, vice and prostitution for many years and the destruction of the War years had not helped conditions for the local population. Father Joe saw it as his work to rescue girls and young women from the dangers and degradation of sexual exploitation by providing them with a safe haven through the church. Helped by a dedicated team of parish workers he helped many to escape the clutches of pimps and brothel keepers, lodging them in a house attached to the church and arranging for pregnant ones to go to the country to have their babies.

Father Joe believed strongly that prostitution was closely linked to bad housing and campaigned tirelessly for housing in Shadwell, Stepney and Poplar to be improved: ‘Bulldozers are the only way to clear Stepney of its shocking vice’. He was lucky to have a Daily Mail photographer as his verger and photos of him striding around his less-than-lovely parish in cassock and biretta and on his knees watching the slums of Graces Alley being demolished made his campaigning known to Bishops and royalty.

By the time he retired in 1962, this ‘frail-looking’ priest with ‘a booming voice’ had transformed whole streets of his parish in his relentless campaign to clear the area of slum housing and prostitution and he was awarded the MBE in 1975.

Recent historians have highlighted some of the negative effects of his work – demolishing some potentially fine 18th century houses which could have been restored to their former glory, because he stigmatised the whole area as a den of vice and slums. But few would deny that the Prostitutes’ Padre was a remarkable priest who put his Christian beliefs into action 100%.


The Woolwich Ferry and Foot Tunnel by Sheila Dobner

Woolwich Ferry South Terminal in c.1025. Souce: The Ideal Homes website.

Woolwich Ferry South Terminal in c.1925. Souce: The Ideal Homes website.

On Monday Sheila Dobner talked to us about the Woolwich Ferry and Foot Tunnel.  Woolwich has been a crossing point on the Thames for centuries. Watermen would have rowed travellers across. Documentation for ferries exists from the 14th century. Serious competition for the watermen and existing ferries arrived when the Great Eastern Railway started a regular steam ferry to take passengers from the south to use North Woolwich Station to travel to London. This service continued until 1908.

The Woolwich Free Ferry was set up by Act of Parliament in 1885 in response to local demand for a free Thames crossing for east Londoners. The bridges further west had recently been purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works and were toll free. The ferry opened on 23rd March 1889, with great ceremony. The first weekend crowds poured in to try it out.

The ferry was often delayed or cancelled as a result of fog. Workers needed to be able to get across in all weathers so a tunnel was constructed. It opened in October 1911. It runs for a third of a mile, 10 feet below the river bed. It remains open and is reportedly used by up to 300,000 people a year.

The first boats were 3 paddle steamers, Gordon, Duncan and Hutton. They continued in use until they were replaced between 1923 and 1930 by four new paddle steamers, Squires, Gordon, Will Crooks and John Benn. All the ships were named after notable men with local connections.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Source: Wikipedia

Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Source: Wikipedia

At the end of the steam era the 7 boats between them had travelled some 400,000 miles, carried 180 million passengers and 55 million vehicles and bicycles. Peak hours were 6-7am and 5-6pm, carrying dockers and factory workers, office and shop workers, as well as shoppers and travellers. The ferry also provided an exciting and cheap day out for families and school children.

After World War II increases in the size and number of vehicles using the ferry began to cause problems. Three motor ships were built in 1963 to replace the ageing paddle steamers: John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman. They were more quickly loaded end-on and were more manoeuvrable.  However many people felt that the romance of the ferry was lost with the end of the paddle steamer era.

The ferry today is still busy and still free. Its future may be in doubt if plans for more river crossings are realised.

The English Spice Trade 1580-1625 by Ian McBrayne

At our session on 31st October, Ian explained that spices from the East Indies were in great demand in past centuries, when food didn’t keep well and often needed a strong flavour added to disguise the decay.  Since at least Roman times, spices had reached Europe overland through Turkey.  But in the late 16th century that route dried up in the face of increasing Portuguese and Dutch maritime activity, travelling to the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, so the English too had to try their luck with trading by sea.


Sir James Lancaster. Source: PortCities website

A first voyage under James Lancaster in 1591-94 was not a success.   The East India Company was set up in 1600 to take the trade forward.  On the Company’s first voyage in 1601-03, with Lancaster again in command, all four ships returned safely, but with significant loss of life.  Lancaster left behind the first English factory (trading station, not place of manufacture) in Bantam on Java, with a supply of Indian calico to trade for spices.  With all the ships returning full of pepper, there was a glut in the London market and profits were relatively modest.  The second voyage was led by Sir Henry Middleton in 1604-06.  One of the four ships and many men were lost, but a better mix in the cargo brought back meant improved profits.  Further voyages followed, with the concept of discrete voyages gradually being replaced by continuous trading.

The traders were faced with many problems.  Disease and in-fighting affected the factories at Bantam.  There were continual skirmishes with the Dutch.  In 1616, Nathaniel Courthope was sent to the Banda Islands to hold Run, the island which was the main source of nutmeg and mace, and managed to do so with no support from the headquarters at Bantam until 1620.  He died just before news arrived of an Anglo-Dutch agreement which shared out the spice trade and made it unnecessary for the English to defend Run.

The Company was reluctant to fulfil its defensive commitments under the agreement, and came under renewed pressure from the Dutch.  In 1622, the chief factor decided to close the factories and thus halted the English spice trade.  In 1623, just before their final closure, English merchants at Ambon were implicated by a Japanese mercenary in a plot against the Dutch and executed.  The failure of the English government to exact reprisals, and increasing interest in trading in India and elsewhere, led the Company formally to abandon trade in the East Indies in 1625.