The Men Who Built the Millwall Docks by Ian McBrayne

Millwall Docks opened in 1868.  They were the brainchild of Nathaniel Fenner, an oil merchant with premises on the western edge of the Isle of Dogs.  Vacant wharfage along the Thames was in short supply, and Fenner saw the scope for creating more along the sides of a dock in the undeveloped marshland at the centre of the Isle, with loading and unloading made easier by lack of tides.

Fenner engaged Robert Fairlie, an engineer known for designing locomotives for narrow-gauge railways, to produce a design and William Wilson, another railway engineer, to run the project.  Fairlie proposed a dock running east-west across the Isle, with access to the river at both ends, and another dock running north from the midpoint of the first.  For financial reasons the eastern arm was never built.

Robert Fairlie, designing engineer of Millwall Docks. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wilson engaged two contractors to build the docks and help finance them: John Aird, whose firm moved the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham, and John Kelk, who was engaged at the time in building the Albert Memorial.  A stellar team was completed by John Fowler, later to build the Forth Rail Bridge, in an advisory role.

The enabling Bill passed through Parliament easily enough, even though Fenner and Fairlie quarrelled with Wilson and briefly opposed their own Bill.  But the costs soon escalated, not least because of the high price of the land for the docks fixed by four powerful landowners, the Earls of Strafford and Strathmore, the Countess of Glengall and the Ironmongers’ Company.  The dock company turned for help to an effective but ruthless financier, Albert Grant, later an MP and three-time bankrupt.  He took control for a while, but the interests of other shareholders were successfully defended by Acton Ayrton MP, who joined the board and shortly became chairman.

Despite these and other problems, work started in July 1865 and water was let into the docks on schedule in August 1867.  Thanks to the slump which followed the collapse of the Overend Gurney bank the previous year, the need for new wharfage had declined and the decision was taken to turn the development into conventional import/export docks.  This meant extra work before the docks could open, but the first ship finally entered on 14th March 1868, albeit greeted by limited warehousing and unfinished quays.

The first few months were very difficult, with little business and disputes about unpaid debts, but in due course the docks became successful, handling mainly timber and grain.  Ayrton became a Government minister and was succeeded as chairman by Charles Parkes, who also chaired the Great Eastern Railway.  George Birt and Frederic Duckham, general manager and clerk of works respectively at the Royal Victoria Dock, were engaged for the same roles at Millwall.  After 25 years as chairman, Parkes stood down in 1893 and was replaced by Birt.

There is a sad postscript.  In 1899, when Birt was off sick, someone noticed irregularities in the accounts.  It emerged that he had been falsifying them for a quarter of a century to make the company look a larger enterprise than it was.  He absconded, but was found living under a false name and sentenced at the Old Bailey to nine months hard labour.

Prittlewell Burial Site – visiting speaker Ian Blair

PLSG was delighted to welcome Ian Blair, archaeologist at the Museum of London to talk to the group about the Prittlewell Burial Site, on the Essex side of the Thames estuary just east of Southend. He was involved with the archaeological project to assess and then dig the site of ‘The Bling King’, aka the Prittlewell Prince, from 2003 to 2018.

Presented on 2 December 2019

The site of a Roman road had originally been discovered in 1923 by Priory Park, where there had been a Saxon priory, which revealed Roman and Saxon burials, mostly poorly preserved because of the sandy soil.

The site quickly revealed many interesting artefacts, justifying the extensive dig. These eventually included a hanging copper alloy vessel, an Eastern Mediterranean flagon, a gold belt buckle, receptacles of various sizes, crosses where the eyes of the dead man would have been, gold fragments of a brocade garment, tremeses from Paris, 57 whalebone gaming counters, metal remnants of burwood drinking vessels and horns, an iron candelabra, glass drinking vessels, the remains of a lyre in a beaver skin bag and a silver spoon:  all good for the Prince’s journey into the afterlife.

Much information was also gathered about the style of Saxon burials from this burial site, which has similarities to slightly later ones at Sutton Hoo, Taplow and Broomfield. Like those, Prittlewell would also have been a burial mound but this must have sunk when the roof of the chamber collapsed. Nothing is left of the coffin apart from the L-shaped coffin brackets.

More information about the site can be found on the MOLA website and there is a book about the Prittlewell archaeological excavation and finds.

Plastics in the Lea Valley – visiting speaker Carolyn Clark

PLSG was delighted to welcome Carolyn Clark to talk about the history of plastics in the Lea Valley. She has long been an enthusiastic collector of vintage plastics and is a leading member of the Plastics Historical Society,

Presented on 25 November 2019

Before the creation of plastics there had long been the use of resins, horn, gutta-percha  and then rubber to model goods that could not be fashioned from wood or stone. Rubber works became important along the London end of the river Lea in Hackney during the 19th century. None of these materials was ideal as they were costly and unsustainable, notably the use of elephant  tusks for billiard balls which needed 12,000 elephants per year to be killed!

The first semi-synthetic plastic, Parkesine, was made in Hackney from the late 1860’s using the cellulose in rags collected by rag and bone men, along with a cocktail of chemicals which made production – largely by poorly-paid women and children – extremely hazardous without protective clothing. The risk of explosions eventually made the business move to the river Stour on the Suffolk-Essex border.

After Parkesine came many new plastics, each designed for different functions and to substitute for expensive natural materials like ivory but it was not until 1907 and the creation of Bakelite, the material of 1,000 uses, that the world got its first fully synthetic plastic. It was a machine-age product that could be moulded for mass-production and became common for radios, telephones and other household goods.

After this came many plastics whose names are still familiar like melamine and formica before the Poly era of the 1930’s and 40’s and acrylics, with multiple applications for surgery, interior decoration, Spitfire windows, clothing and food storage. The list is endless, as are the names of the different mixes.

There have been no new plastics since the 1970’s, just mixes rejigged. This miracle material can now be 3D-printed and is of course causing major disposal problems as it fails to break down, thereby causing immense damage to marine and river life. Having not been able to get enough of plastics in the 20th century, we are now trying to cut down on their usage in the 21st as we realise the environmental damage they can cause.

East & West London: Creation of the social divide by Anne Tickell

Presented on 14 October 2019

At the beginning of the 17th century  there were about  200,000 living in London and by 1800 about a million.

John Stow’s  Survey of London first published 1598 looked back on a City very similar to that of the middle ages.   He described a City that was made up of the City of London with ancient walls inhabited by merchants, traders, financiers and craftsmen and the City of Westminster which was the seat of the Court, Government and Established religion ( Westminster Abbey)

He also made a mention of the suburbs without the walls and around Westminster but there was no mention of anything of significance to the East of London.

On the other hand  a Survey of London by John Strype in 1720 said London was divided into 4 parts: The City of London within the walls inhabited by wealthy merchants and tradesmen   (as before). The  City of Westminster with Court and Gentry and eminent tradesmen serving the King and court.  There was  also a part beyond the Tower comprising St Catharine’s East of Smithfield, Ratcliff, Limehouse and East to Blackwall  inhabited by seafaring men and their associated trades.  The final area was Southwark which was generally inhabited with Tradesmen, craftsmen, and Watermen.

Stepney at the beginning of the 17th century was chiefly rural with large houses for the rich escaping the pollution and smells of the City –Thomas More ,William Penn and Thomas Cromwell for example.

There were endless proclamations to reduce shoddy tenement buildings but especially along the river’s edge they grew up  impeded. Although there had been an insistence that buildings should be made of brick, few were as wood was cheap and there was little apparent need for buildings to last more than about 50 years.

As Britain became more Globally successful (e.g., with the East India Company and the Muscovy Company and the building of large shipyards such as the EIC’s at Deptford) so did the need for skilled and unskilled labour rise.  Smaller and private yards also expanded and thus there was a need for the endless related skills such as coopers or sailmakers but also victuallers and salterers.

Non-conformist religions became popular in various areas of the East End, particularly the Quakers who by the end of the 17th century had about 10,000 supporters in the whole of London

The industrial revolution really only affected East of the City where there was easy access to the channel for coal supplies, etc. and an easy spot to export from, and few gentry to complain about the noise and pollution. The West End was much more residential with shops and services to cater for the generally better-off.

In spite of the urban area East of the City being thought of as part of London at the beginning of the 18th century the terms East and West End do not seem to have appeared till some time in the 19th century.  I have not found definitive date I’m afraid.

Recommended Reading:


The Bridge of Sighs by Frances Bulwer

Presented on 12 February 2020

Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ of 1844 was a huge commercial and artistic success, highlighting much-publicised incidents of female suicide from Waterloo Bridge in the mid-1800’s and using the stereotype of the ‘fallen woman’ in London’s rapidly growing population and the changing role of women in the ‘Queen City’ of the world to question attitudes to women who had reached such depths of desperation. The poem is unusually compassionate to the drowned woman, despite whatever behaviour had led to her disgrace.

Waterloo Bridge, opened in 1816, was a toll crossing and so a quieter bridge for determined suicidal women to end their lives from. These women may have been cast out because of marital infidelity or pregnancy outside wedlock or were poor girls lured away from more rural communities by romantic promises in the city, only to be betrayed on arrival and too ashamed to return home. Suicides in the Thames became relatively common, although more women took their lives – less dramatically – in the park lakes and canals than from the Thames bridges.

Some of the most famous artists of the day, including Millais and Doré, illustrated Hood’s poem in its different editions while paintings by Watts, Egg, Rossetti and others all dramatised the fate of the woman who dared to stray from the acceptable path for a respectable woman in society. Lurid accounts of female suicides from Waterloo Bridge also appeared, complete with engravings, in newspapers and ‘penny dreadfuls’.

Male suicides were three times more common than female ones in the mid-1800’s but the image of a beautiful young woman ’Found Drowned’ became a popular one for artists and writers to exploit in a rapidly changing city where women were in danger of a violent watery end  if their natural  ‘moral weakness‘ led them astray.


Found Drowned, GF Watts, c. 1850. George Frederic Watts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Emigration to New Zealand in the 19th Century by Ian McBrayne

Presented on 12 February 2020

Until towards the end of the 18th century, New Zealand was inhabited exclusively by Māori.  From about 1800, white settlers began to arrive, largely traders at first but later emigrants, many of them from Britain, fleeing hardship or seeing the new country as a land of opportunity.  By the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, the Māori ceded New Zealand to the British Crown, and from that time the white population grew exponentially, though migration was always a two-way process and the numbers of Māori also grew.

New Zealand in the 19th century was a developing country in urgent need of a workforce, particularly workers in agriculture and other pre-industrial trades.  Britain’s population was out-stripping its food supply, and agricultural jobs in particular were under pressure from enclosures and industrialisation.  Those who left Britain for New Zealand were therefore mainly labourers and workers in traditional crafts.

The three peaks of activity for immigration to New Zealand in the 19th century were in the early 1840s and the 1870s to 1880s when assisted passages were offered, or sometimes land grants on arrival, and in the early 1860s for the gold rush.  Miners arrived largely from Australia, though mainly of British origin, but in the other two main waves a very high proportion of the immigrants were directly from Britain and the great majority of those sailed from the Port of London, embarking at either Blackwall or Gravesend.

In the early 1840s the driving force behind emigration from Britain was the New Zealand Company, taking forward the ideals of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. This was a philanthropic, though not egalitarian, venture.  In the 1870s, the main player was New Zealand’s Colonial Treasurer, Julius Vogel, who aimed to use immigration to revitalise the colony’s economy.  He was helped by the work of the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation in Britain, and by the British agricultural workers’ union, which was keen to promote new opportunities for its members.

In the 1840s, a fair number of the settlers were from a wealthy background, but this genteel element was largely lacking later in the century. The men who travelled on assisted passages, both in the 1840s and in the 1870s and 1880s, were overwhelmingly agricultural and other labourers and those skilled in pre-industrial craft trades.  In the 1840s, they usually had to be married and took their families with them.  In the 1870s and 1880s both families and single people were accepted.  Most came from England, the south east and the south west in particular, with substantial minorities from Scotland and Ireland.

There was a lull in migration at the end of the 19th century, but it picked up again in the early 20th century and has continued at varying levels to the present.

This is a summary of a presentation given to the Study Group by Ian McBrayne on 3rd February 2020

Visit to “Under Ground London” by Frances Bulwer

PLSG Visited the Under Ground London exhibit at London Metropolitan Archives on 21 October 2019

London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell have kilometres of material about the capital available to consult – a veritable treasure trove of information about every aspect of London life and history.

Underground London brochure‘Under Ground London’, happily now extended until 4th December, makes fine use of their fantastic resources for a small but fascinating exhibition of what lies, lay, lived, moved/moves, worked/works below street level from Bazalgette’s sewers, public conveniences, road and rail tunnels to the rat catchers and ‘toshers’ of Victorian times.

PLSG was lucky to have LMA archivist Sharon Tuft to explain the Thames aspects of the exhibition and the thinking behind what has been included and we are grateful to her for giving us her time.

LMA also has an interesting sister exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery, The London That Never Was running to 8th December.

The Trebor Story by Jill Napier

Presented on 4 November 2019

Trebor is an iconic British sweet brand which has its roots in the East End of London. Britain’s big role in the slave trade led to a new availability of sugar by the mid 18th Century, mainly from the West Indies. Once an exclusive and expensive product, sugar was imported into England in huge quantities to satisfy a growing demand. The West India Docks supplied raw sugar to the boiling houses of the East End and then to the great refineries, like Tate & Lyle. By the mid 19th Century, sugar was a main staple of the working class diet, mostly in the form of cheap jam. Sugar was cheap, addictive and pleasurable; there was also a huge market for children’s sweets.

Trebor was a Victorian start up begun in 1907 by four men looking to make extra money and start a  new enterprise. All of them – with their different work and business experiences – had grown up and moved on from the Old East End into the new suburbs of East London where new communities and markets were made possible by the arrival and growth of the railways. Sweet making was a good business prospect; there were other factories in the East End (Clarnico, & Whites) and Barrett & Co., Confectioners & Maynards, North London as well as many other smaller enterprises.

Trebor had small beginnings in premises in Trebor Terrace, St Katherine’s Rd., Forest Gate, E7.  It began life as Robertson & Woodcock, named after the two founders who had a full time role in the business. The trade name Trebor was adopted in 1918.

The business survived the difficult restrictions of World War 1 and early on demonstrated that it was flexible, adaptable and innovative. It pioneered new methods of transport and distribution and new technical processes imported from Germany. It invested in new machinery and  the new power source, electricity; it pioneered new marketing techniques, advertising and new working practices. From a small East End base, it had achieved a national presence and network by World War 2.

The Forest Gate premises were bombed in 1944 and production there suffered some interruption but careful expansion before WW2 meant that Trebor could relocate production also to a base in Chesterfield. It had both a market in the Midlands, N. England and Scotland and a distribution system to utilise. It provided sweets for Government contracts, moved into chocolate making and had survived sugar rationing again by buying up small sweet making firms and their sugar quotas.

Trebor was in a relatively strong position at the end of the War and developed international markets and production bases. Steered by loyal and talented management staff and with a long standing  and settled employee base, it was effectively a family business run by Marks Family alone. The Chairman, Sydney John Marks was the son of one of the original founders of the Company. His sons, John and Ian, were also to have leading roles in the business.

Trebor bought out its rivals – Clarnico, Maynards and Sharps – and it developed the Moffat Group in the 1960s – 1980s. This was a distribution network company which diversified its interests into supplying other goods like cigarettes.

By the mid 1980s, it was one of the largest sweet making firms in the UK, with a fourth generation of the Marks Family already involved in the business. Global trading was changing, however. In 1988 the British chocolate manufacturer, Rowntree, was sold to Nestle. Trebor found itself exposed. Unable to raise the capital to buy Bassett and unable to continue competing in an aggressive and acquisitive world of huge multi nationals, the Marks Family took the decision to sell to Cadbury in 1989. Gradually, the Trebor factories were closed by 2003 and production moved North. Cadbury itself was bought up by Kraft in 2010.

The Trebor name still exists and includes their most popular and successful  product, Extra Strong Mints, invented in 1935. At the Company’s height it had 423 sweet products on its list; today there are only 4. Trebor is part of the Mondelez global snacks empire.

The Forest Gate Art Deco Factory, built to house a thriving business, is now a set of apartments.

Further resources:

A Job for David – Trebor Careers Film, 1957 (YouTube)

Matthew Crampton, The Trebor Story, 2012

E7 Then & Now, The Trebor Story, Forest Gate’s Sweet Success

East India Dock Road by Ian McBrayne

East India Dock Road owes its existence to the docks and provided housing and other facilities for those connected with the docks throughout their life.

The road was built between 1806 and 1810 to complete a route for wagons carrying goods between the East India Company’s warehouses in the City and their ships in the newly-built East India Docks. Gradually over the next 50 years, houses were built along its length, ranging from substantial detached villas to modest terraces.

The 1871 census shows 342 houses in the road, a very small proportion of which had been converted into shops or pubs, and only 11 purpose-built non-residential buildings. The latter comprised two Anglican churches and three non-conformist chapels, two schools, a sailors’ home, a hospital, a railway station and a public bath-house. Only All Saints church survives in the same form and use; the baths have been substantially rebuilt and the sailors’ home is now flats.

The larger houses were generally occupied by businessmen or white collar workers, often associated with the docks. They lived in some comfort, usually with servants to look after them. The occupants of the more modest houses had more modest jobs to match. Overall, this was a comfortable middle-class street, with no evidence of real poverty.

The street changed relatively little for another 70 years. In the Second World War, many of the buildings were damaged, sometimes beyond repair. With the clearance of bomb damage, the building of the Lansbury Estate to the north and, more recently, redevelopment of the docks, the character of the road has now changed enormously. Recent arrivals which are signs of the times are a mosque, an NHS well-being clinic, an Idea Store (library) and the London campus of the University of Cumbria. One building on the site of the docks, opened in 1988 as headquarters of the Financial Times, is already a Grade II* listed building.

East End Educators (1536-1769). by Ann Evans

Presented at the Port of London Study Group on 7 October 2019


East End Educators – 1536 – 1769

During this period a number of schools were established in the East End of London.

They were founded by wealthy citizens of the East End, many with connections to City Companies. These citizens were united, in wishing to use their wealth, to support the education of poor children, in accord with their Christian faith.

Nicholas Gibson

The Nicholas Gibson free school, was founded in 1536, by Nicholas Gibson a prominent grocer in the City of London. After his death in 1549, Gibson’s wife Avis took over the running of the school, which could take up to 60 boys. Avis asked the Coopers’ Company to undertake the management of the school and to include their title in its name.

The school was situated in Ratcliff, between Shadwell and Limehouse. Schoolhouse Lane is still there and marks the place where the School and the Coopers’ Company Alms Houses were located for over three hundred years.

Prisca Coborn

The widow of Thomas Coborn, a brewer, established a co-educational school in Bow in 1701as a result in the terms of her will, investing the school with lands let to tenants in Bow, Stratford and Bocking. The School was first sited near Bow Bridge.She was buried at Bow Church.

In 1891 the two foundations were united as Coburn girls and Coopers’ boys. In 1971 the schools were amalgamated as the Coopers’ Company and Coburn School, and moved to Upminster.

Ralph Davenant

The Reverend Ralph Davenant, Rector of St Mary’s Whitechapel, drew up his will, leaving his household goods and plate, to his wife, with the provision, that it should eventually be sold and that the monies raised should be used to build a school for 40 of the poor boys of Whitechapel. Further funds were raised to educate 34 poor girls.

Boys were to learn reading, writing and arithmetic; girls were to learn reading, writing and sewing. A site for the school was found on the Whitechapel, the old school buildings still stand on the site.

The School moved to Loughton in Essex in 1966, as a two form entry boys’ grammar school. The school became co-educational in1980, for 1,000 girls and boys.

Henry Raine

He was a devout Christian, and lived in Wapping between 1679 and 1738. He made a fortune in brewing, and built a fine home in Woodford in 1714, on the proceeds.

Henry Raine believed that he should do some good with his money and established a charity school for 50 boys and 50 girls in the hamlet of St George’s in the East.

At the school, poor local children were clothed, fed and taught to read. The boys were also taught to write and to handle accounts; the girls were instructed in sewing.

The building still stands, the stone over the door bears the school motto and in stone niches each side are two statues of a boy and a girl in the school uniform.

In 1736 Henry Raine built a boarding school for girls, named the “Asylum”. It allowed the foundation to rescue 40 girls from sometimes chaotic home lives. The students would be clothed, educated and provided for, and after four years training, would go into domestic service at the age of 19. He also established a fund of £210 for two marriage portions available by lottery to students of Raine’s Asylum.

The Asylum and marriage portions are long gone, but the school continues.

In 1964 the two schools merged and became co-educational. They are now located in Approach Road, to the north of Bethnal Green, near Cambridge Heath Railway Station.

Francis Bancroft

In 1737 Francis Bancroft, a wealthy city merchant left the bulk of his fortune to the Drapers’ Company “to establish a school for one hundred poor boys aged between seven and fifteen”. The Drapers’ Company became Trustees of Bancroft’s School

The boys were to be instructed in “reading, writing and casting accounts”.

Bancroft’s School was set up in Mile End on what is now the site of Queen Mary University of London. The first boys were all day boys, the first borders were not admitted until 1802.

The site in Mile End proved increasingly unsuitable as Victorian London expanded. The school sold the site and moved to Tottenham for three years, and then to its present site in Woodford Wells. The Charity Commission insisted that the poor of London retained the right to foundation scholarship. Until 1964, 50 scholars from the administrative County of London, were admitted to the boarding house.

Sarah Bonnell

Sarah Bonnell School is one of the oldest girls’ schools in England.

Sarah Bonnell, a rich resident of Walthamstow, left £3,500 in her will for the setting up of a school for poor girls in West Ham.

The first school, established in 1769 was situated opposite West Ham Church and was known as Miss Bonnell’s School. There was one school room, one teacher and forty girls.

In 1905 the school moved to Stratford, and in the 1920s it became part of the state education system. In1944 it became the Sarah Bonnell Grammar School, and is now known as the Sarah Bonnell Schoool, and is one of the comprehensive schools in Newham. It moved to Cannon Street in Stepney in 1883 and then to Arbor Square in 1913.