Poplar High Street, running east-west across the top of the Isle of Dogs, is steeped in history. There has been a road in that position at least since the 15th century. It used to be a classic high street and a significant through route. Thanks to a continuing process of development and change, it is now neither.
The High Street has played a significant part in the history of the port. It used to be at the heart of one of the dockland communities. In the 17th century, it was the only land route to Blackwall, then a major shipbuilding and repair centre, and to the central part of the Isle of Dogs. The East India Company had property on the street, it was greatly affected by the building of the West India Docks and it was home to the Poplar Workhouse, many of whose inmates had port-related trades. At the turn of the 20th century, the street became home to the London County Council’s School of Marine Engineering.
Gascoyne’s map of the area in 1703 and Rocque’s map of 1746 both show the High Street as the only road in the area which was at all built up at that stage. Much of the land was owned by the manors of Poplar and Stepney. It was mostly leased out in quite small parcels and then further sublet to the actual occupiers.
When the East and West India Docks came in the first decade of the 19th century, that was a trigger for a large amount of rebuilding along the street. This is the stage at which it became a typical high street, with most of the new buildings consisting of a shop with residential accommodation behind and above. By 1840, the surrounding area had become much more developed, with East India Dock Road built to the north in 1812 and the London and Blackwall Railway newly opened to the south.
The street was now at its most prosperous. The 1881 census shows a well-to-do middle class street, with an average of five people per building and one family in six having at least one live-in servant. Just to the north, however, there were a number of courtyards squeezed in on back land with far less salubrious housing. By the start of the 20th century, the street was becoming very shabby and a number of noisome trades were springing up.
Much of the housing was now in poor condition, and in the mid 1930s Poplar Borough Council made a number of slum clearance schemes, replacing old housing with the first of the blocks of council flats which dominate the street today. More followed in the 1950s, replacing houses damaged in the Blitz.
Here are some examples of the way land usage along the street developed and changed over time.
- The East India Company site: In the 1620s, the East India Company was persuaded of the need to provide almshouses for retired seamen and their families. In 1627, they bought and converted a substantial Elizabethan house on the street, with space for a garden behind. Shortly after, they were persuaded to build a chapel in the garden for local worshippers, to save the journey to St Dunstan’s in Stepney. It opened in 1654 and is the only church left in London which was built during the Commonwealth.
In 1801 the Company replaced the original house with a row of purpose-built almshouses along the street and another row at the end of the garden. In the middle of the street frontage was a house for the chaplain who served both the chapel and the almshouses. When the Company folded in 1858, the chapel became a parish church, St Matthias, with the chaplain’s house becoming the vicarage, while the almshouses were demolished. One corner of the site was used to accommodate offices for Poplar Board of Works and the rest was turned into a recreation ground. The church is now a community centre, the offices are a hotel and the vicarage is private flats.
- West India Dock housing: Dolphin Lane, one of the ancient lanes leading south from the High Street onto the Isle of Dogs, became a short cul-de-sac when the West India Docks were built. The Dock Company built 70 cottages there for its workers in 1849 and later added a library and reading room. The popularity of the latter gradually faded and it closed in 1886. The building was put to a variety of industrial uses until the whole site was cleared in 1936. Today, exactly where the cottages stood, are some pleasant rows of slightly cottagey housing, an unusual sight in an area dominated by flats.
A similar story can be told of the other ancient southward lane, Harrow Lane, whose post-dock remains contained some indifferent Victorian housing, as well as houses built by the Dock Company for their police force. A slum clearance scheme in the 1930s made way for two elegant blocks of council flats. On the opposite side of the High Street another 1930s block marks the spot where three of the more unpleasant courtyard developments were cleared.
- From workhouse to college: Poplar Workhouse occupied a row of houses on the south side of the High Street from 1757, and acquired its own purpose-built premises on the site in 1817. The premises gradually expanded behind the main frontage throughout the 19th In 1854, there was accommodation for 601 inmates; this rose to 786 after 1868.
In 1894, a public library was opened on the High Street a little to the east of the workhouse, and shortly after the space in between was used by London County Council to set up a marine engineering college. The workhouse and the library were both badly damaged by bombing in the Blitz. The workhouse closed, though it was not demolished until 1960. There were plans to demolish the library as well and replace it with an extension to the college, which was by now a further education college. In the end, the library building was kept and incorporated into the college. In 2004, a further college extension was built on much of the workhouse site, so what is now New City College occupies three adjoining buildings in very different styles spanning more than a century. On another part of the workhouse site the name The Workhouse has been retained for a modern sports and leisure building.
Today the strong residential element in the street remains, together with some of the religious, educational and social features that go with that, but most of the shops have gone. Today Poplar High Street is nothing more than a typical nondescript modern urban street. Maybe, though, two recently opened boutique hotels are a sign of gentrification to come.
There is one other indication of what may happen in the future. On the north side of the street at the eastern end sits Robin Hood Gardens, two long curving blocks of council flats in a starkly modernist style completed in 1972. These controversial blocks are at least the third wave of housing on the site, and are themselves awaiting demolition. They will be replaced by the second phase of a massive housing development known as Blackwall Reach; the first phase on the south side of the High Street is already well advanced. This is the first development which suggests that what we think of as docklands regeneration is reaching the area. This could be a turning point for the High Street.
For much more detail about the history of the street and its buildings, see Volume XLIII of the Survey of London, available online at www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4 .