Old Ford lock on the Lea River
Our walk yesterday began with a ride on the Dockland Light Railway (DLR), meeting at Pudding Mill Lane. As with other walks during the term, this was an area that very few of us, except Sheila, had visited before. It was a really unexpected corner of east London, with a surprise around every corner. Fish Island in E3 is a 19th century industrial quarter in the northern section of the lower Lea Valley, part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, sandwiched between Hackney in the north and Newham to the east. Fish island received its name because it is bounded by canals – the Hackney Cut and the Hertford Union Canal, the East Cross Route road, and Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall sewer, together with the fact that several streets are named after fish! It is now a conservation area. Although the Olympic Park is just across the canal, a number of the old industrial buildings survive and are now in use by creative, light engineering and other small businesses. There is lots of graffiti art, much of it of very high quality. Our walk took us along the Jubilee Greenway (atop Bazalgette’s sewer) and onto the island.
The Olympic statdium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit
Fish Island falls in the area of Old Ford, the main crossing place on the River Lea from London to Essex until the early 12th century, when a stone bridge was built half a mile downstream. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries canals were cut across the marshy area north of Old Ford. These remain as the Hackney Cut (1768-9), which bypassed the River Lea, and the Hertford Union Canal (1830), which links the Hackney Cut and the Regent’s Canal, expanding London’s water transport network and encouraging the development of new businesses and industries in the area. In the 1850s the North London Railway line was built, followed by an east-west branch line in 1866. To the south, Bazalgette’s Northern outfall Sewer (1860s) crosses the area, completing the isolation of the so-called “island.” The East Cross Route constructed in 1959 now forms the western boundary.
Everyone’s first question was about where Pudding Mill Lane got it’s name, and the answer was that it was named for St Thomas’s Mill, which was apparently shaped, you guessed it, in the form of an upturned pudding! We made our way out of the station and headed along a small section of the Jubilee Greenway. The Greenway is 60km long representing one kilometre for each year of the Queen’s reign on her Diamond Jubilee (for a map click here) and, in this area, links together all the major sites of the Olympic Games. And indeed, as we proceeded up a short slope covered with a beautiful array of bright flowers, the ArcelorMittal Orbit and the Olympic Stadium loomed into sight. Created by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond as the UK’s tallest sculpture, to mark the 2012 Olympics, the Orbit is now also, at 178m, the world’s longest tunnel slide. The Olympic Stadium is thankfully still in use today. In direct contrast, looking to the left a wide undeveloped strip of land lay alongside the Greenway, on the other side of which was the old Bryant and May match factory, a real landmark, now converted to apartments, flanked by trailing odds and ends of modern commerce and industry.
View to the west from the Jubilee Greenway, with the old Bryant and May match factory taking centre stage
As we proceeded along the Greenway we saw the tall chimney now part of the Big Yellow Self Storage complex in Bow, featuring an advert for the company at its top, which turned out to be a ubiquitous feature on the walk, visible from all over Fish Island. Walking down a gentle slope we found ourselves at sun-dappled stretch of water, the navigable River Lea, with the 19th Century waterside brick-built buildings of Plough Swan Wharf already visible. A few moments later we were at the 1856 Old Ford lock, where a small foot bridge took us over the river into the heart of Fish Island.
Swan Wharf on Dace Road
Our first stop was at an attractive Edwardian building called Swan Wharf on Dace Road. Over three levels, built out of yellow stock with windows surrounding in black engineering brick, it was probably the most surprising of many surprising buildings on the walk. Servicing the eternal need on roads and along canals for horses, and built between 1906 and 1912, it was a multi-storey horse stables over all three floors, with access ramps at the back, and windows at the front to ventilate the stalls. Victorian ingenuity never ceases to amaze. Today the building is used for a variety of small business enterprises, a woodworking workshop, the Barbican Fish Island Labs and a large events space. From the outside, it appears to be in really excellent condition. On the other side of the road, in a building that looked rather like a church with blocked windows, the modern world was taking off with the former Birnbaum Rubber Works of 1889, possibly the last surviving rubber works in Fish Island, which specialized in waterproof clothing.
In the Victorian and Edwardian periods this area was dominated by light industry including rubber processing, waterproof clothing manufacture, a folding box company, print works, an iron works, peanut processing works and small artisan factories. Although the architecture that survives today is an echo of this industrial past, the Gas Light and Coke Company who had owned the land in the 1870s developed the area as a factory town, which included terraced housing and a school, and it was at this time that some of the streets were named after freshwater fish (bream, dace and roach). The area was seriously affected by bomb damage in the Second World War and post-war planning led to the removal of the housing, schools and other amenities and Fish Island became dedicated to light industry. In spite of the war damage, many of the original buildings survive and it is great to see them being occupied by a wide variety of small businesses, with a heavy emphasis on artistic and other creative enterprises.
As we headed further into Fish Island, walking along Smeed Road and Stour Road, we had a real sense of the pride that local businesses have in the place, with multiple plant displays and a profusion of wall art. One low building with some nice architectural features and a carriage entrance had been a waterproof clothing factory but became a Percy Dalton’s peanut factory. Liberally decorated in painted motifs, it was an explosive mixture of traditional architectural concepts and newer forms of expression. Percy Dalton’s took on several buildings in the area as peanut factories, at least one of which has now been converted to artists’ studios. Although the company no longer has premises in the Hackney Wick area, it survives today. Further along the same road we stopped to take in another blend of 19th and 21st century ideas – the Algha Works. Formerly a printing works, with the lower level windows angled outward to attract as much light into the basement areas as possible, it became an optical works making spectacles in 1932. This is another building that combines old and new, the original features in tact, but bright colours adorning walls and doors.
H. Formans and Sons building
Turning down Stour Road, a surprising combination of buildings and businesses followed. the former land of a carbonic acid gasworks and the site of two former piano factories were accompanied by the ultra modern H. Formans and Sons building. For the time being the gasworks remain something of a mystery but one of the two piano factory buildings survives in part, and the brick chimney, with a blue decorative brickwork top, is in good condition. It belonged to John Broadwood and Sons Ltd who have made pianos for the Royal household from the time of George II to the present day. They moved here in 1902. Although the rails are now long gone, in 1903 a tramway had connected the factory and the timber wharf that supplied the wood for the piano manufacture. Modern units included a small Truman’s brewery distribution centre. The modern Forman and Sons building was partially pink, a nod to its function as a distribution hub for its well known smoked salmon, both via its warehouse and its restaurant (the latter perhaps fortuitously closed on the day of our visit).
Heading around another corner, we found ourselves confronted by a building site with a 19th Century chimney sitting rather bizarrely in the midst of the construction work, and a modern residential development, called Omega Works, at the end of the road, just before the Hertford Union canal bridge. A rather more attractive concept than some modern developments, I was amused and pleased to see that one of the upper storey balconies overlooking the canal sported a small but rather good looking piece of graffiti on an interior wall. The chimney in the middle of the new building site was marked M.K. Carlton. It was originally built for the Gas Light and Coke Company but became the factory premises of the M.K. Carlton Shoe Company later on.
The remains of the Clarnico confectionery factory
Crossing the Hertford Union Canal, we were leaving Fish Island but had not yet finished our walk. The canal opened in 1830, its purpose to link the Regent’s Canal to the River Lea at the Old Ford Locks, where we had already been, as a short route to the Thames. It was a private venture by Sir George Duckett who borrowed money to build it and charged a toll for vessels passing along it, and it was known for some time as Duckett’s Canal. Unfortunately, it was a commercial failure, became unnavigable and was eventually sold to the Regents Canal Company in 1857, when it was restored and re-opened.
To the north of the Hertford Union Canal, the Hackney Wick area was the home of many innovative industries, from dye stuffs, plastics and dry cleaning to, rather endearingly, confectionery, Matchbox toys and Bronco toilet paper! All were based around the river and canal system, busy cargo routes, part of the dense industrial landscape and quite unlike the the quietly drifting leisure resources that most of our waterways are today. After leaving the canal the first of the buildings that we came to was part of the former Clarnico company premises in Hackney Wick, the remnant of the largest confectioners in Britain in the late 19th century when the building was established in 1879. The company was bought by Trebor in 1969. The rest of the buildings in the complex were demolished to provide land for a bio-generator for the Olympic site.
We turned left down White Post Lane, passing the White Building, now a cultural venue, with studios, project space, hire space and a café. Heading down White Post Lane we paused to look at number 92, which was an early dry cleaning centre at a time when dry cleaning was an innovative new process, but is now the Schwarz Artz Gallery. Beyond that was the site of the Lea Tavern followed by the site of a tar and chemical works.
Central Books distribution centre
Walking along a liberally decorated section of bendy White Post Lane, we passed the former Lord Napier pub, now a remarkable graffiti canvas, before turning into Wallis Road and passing under the railway bridge to stop for a moment outside 55-57 Wallis Road, the former Lion Works, built as an Iron Foundry in 1880 and enlarged over time. It is thought that part of building was the first dyeing and dry cleaning company established in England, a business imported from France. Between the 1950s and early 80s it was occupied by upholstery and soft furnishing company George Hensher, and today the building now houses artists studios and other small businesses. Our final stop was the Central Books distribution centre, a magnificently robust building dating to 1938, full of windows. One of the striking things about the 19th Century buildings was the space in many of the buildings allocated to large windows, which must have suffused the interiors with light.
Our walk finished near Hackney Wick Overground Station, with a choice to take the Overground back into town, or to cross a bridge into the Olympic Park.
Map of our walk around Fish Island (our path marked in orange)
It was remarkable how many small industries Fish Island supported. As Sheila pointed out towards the end of the walk, each of the industries supported others in Fish Island, with chemicals and processes that could be exchanged between the businesses operating in the area. The entire walk was a dazzling contrast of architectural styles, with a positive blaze of artistic expression giving life to an area that might otherwise seem rather fragmented, disjointed and sometimes decayed. Although graffiti is often considered to be a sign of the degeneration of an area, in Fish Island it serves to express a solidarity of purpose and a real sense of direction. Fish Island has a distinctive identity all of its own. It was interesting to see how instead of being converted into apartments, which is the usual fate of surviving 19th Century buildings, the former factories and commercial works of this area are being put to use for small businesses. With new residential projects being purpose-built at the Hackney Wick end, and presumably before too long at the Pudding Mill Lane end, it will be interesting to see what happens to Fish Island in the future.
Our many thanks to Sheila for doing all the in-depth research, her excellent handouts (the content of which form most of the content of this post), and for leading us so enjoyably and informatively, with a much-appreciated stop part way round at the lovely Greenway Cafe, 41 Dace Road, where we had some excellent coffees. It was a really great walk.
For more information about Fish Island:
The book Buildings of England Series, London 5: East by Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, 2005.
Tower Hamlets website: Fish Island, conservation area. London Borough of Tower Hamlets, 2009
The Hackney Wick and the Old Ford Area Characterisation Study and Assessment of Key Buildings. Compiled for EDAW Ltd. Opens as a PDF at: Hackney Wick Old Ford characterisation-study