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Isle of Dogs

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Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs

Location of the Isle of Dogs within Central London
Isle of Dogs is located in Greater London
Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs
 Isle of Dogs shown within Greater London
OS grid reference
London borough Tower Hamlets
Ceremonial county Greater London
Region London
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town LONDON
Postcode district E14
Dialling code 020
Police Metropolitan
Fire London
Ambulance London
EU Parliament London
UK Parliament Poplar and Limehouse
London Assembly City and East
List of places
Isle of Dogs as shown in John Rocque's map of London, 1747 showing the area before development

The Isle of Dogs is a former island in the East End of London that is bounded on three sides (east, south and west) by one of the largest meanders in the River Thames. It is almost bounded to the north by the South Dock (part of the old West India Docks). This dock is separated from an inlet of the River Thames by some forty metres of infilled land. Except for this one small separation, access to the Isle of Dogs always necessitates crossing water by bridge or tunnel.


The soil is alluvial and silty in nature, underlaid by clay or mud, with a peat layer in places.[1]


The name Isle of Dogs is first recorded in 1588 (see hereafter), but had been in use for some years before this.[1] Brewer's 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable attributes the name: "So called from being the receptacle of the greyhounds of Edward III. Some say it is a corruption of the Isle of Ducks, and that it is so called in ancient records from the number of wild fowl inhabiting the marshes."[2] Other sources[1][3] discount this, believing these stories to all derive from the antiquarian John Strype, and believe it might come from one of the following:

  • a nickname of contempt; it was a "dog's life" for anyone forced to live on it. Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson wrote a satirical play in 1597, which was a mocking attack on the island of Great Britain, titled The Isle of Dogs. Samuel Pepys referred to the "unlucky Isle of Dogs."
  • the presence of Dutch engineers reclaiming the land from a disastrous flood.[1]
  • the presence of gibbets on the foreshore facing Greenwich.[1]
  • a yeoman farmer called Brache, this being an old word for a type of hunting dog.[1]
  • the original docks located here were used for firewood importation and the phrase is linked to "fire dogs", the cross-beams beneath a hearth fire, hence Isle of Dogs.
  • the dogs of a later king, Henry VIII, who also kept deer in Greenwich Park. Again it is thought that his hunting dogs might have been kept in derelict farm buildings on the Island.[1][4]
  • Literately the Isle of Dykes, which then got corrupted over the years.[5]


The whole area was once simply known as Stepney Marsh; Van den Wyngaede's "Panorama of London" dated 1543 depicts and refers to the Isle of Dogs. Records show that ships preparing to carry the English royal household to Calais in 1520 docked at the southern bank of the Island. The name Isle of Dogges occurs in the Thamesis Descriptio of 1588, applied to a small island in the south-western part of the peninsula. The name is next applied to the Isle of Dogs Fam (originally known as Pomfret Manor) shown on a map of 1683. At the same time, the area was variously known as Isle of Dogs or the Blackwell levels. By 1855, it was incorporated within the parish of Poplar under the aegis of the Poplar Board of Works. This was incorporated into the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar on its formation in 1900.[1]

The Isle of Dogs is in the centre of this 2005 aerial view of east London looking northeast from the skies over south London. The Millennium Dome can be seen on the Greenwich Peninsula to the right (east) of the Isle of Dogs.

After the building of the Docks (especially the West India Docks and the adjacent City Canal), and with an increasing population, locals increasingly referred to the area as The Island. Between 1986 and 1992 it enjoyed a brief formal existence, as the name Isle of Dogs was applied to one of seven neighbourhoods to whom power was devolved from the council. This resulted in replacement of much of the street signage in the area that remains in place. The neighbourhood was abolished on a further change of power.[6] This area includes Millwall, Cubitt Town, and Blackwall. The south of the isle opposite Greenwich was once known as North Greenwich, now applied to the area around the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula.

It was the site of the highest concentration of council housing in England but is now best known as the location of the prestigious Canary Wharf office complex. One Canada Square, also known as the Canary Wharf Tower, is the second tallest habitable building in Britain at 244 metres (801 ft).[7] The peninsula is an area of social extremes, comprising some of the most prosperous and most deprived areas of the country; in 2004, nearby Blackwall was the 81st most deprived ward in England out of over 8,000,[8] while the presence of Canary Wharf gives the area one of the highest average incomes in the UK.[9]



The Isle of Dogs is situated some distance downriver from the City of London. The area was originally a sparsely populated marshland before its drainage and planting in the 13th century. A catastrophic breach in the riverside embankment occurred in 1488, resulting in the area returning to its original marshy condition. This was not reversed until Dutch engineers re-drained it in the 17th century.[5]

One road led across the Marshes to an ancient ferry, at Ferry Road. There was rich grazing on the marsh, and cattle were killed for market in fields known as the Killing Fields, south of Poplar High Street.

The western side of the island was known as Marsh Wall, the district became known as Millwall with the building of the docks, and from the number of windmills constructed along the top of the flood defence.


1899 The Isle of Dogs, at the height of its commercial success

The urbanisation of the Isle of Dogs took place in the 19th century following the construction of the West India Docks, which opened in 1802. This heralded the area's most successful period, when it became an important centre for trade. The East India Docks were subsequently opened in 1806, followed by Millwall Dock in 1868. By the 1880s, the casual employment system caused Dock workers to unionise under Ben Tillett and John Burns.[10] This led to a demand for 6d per hour (2.5p), and an end to casual labour in the docks. After a bitter struggle, the London Dock Strike of 1889 was settled with victory for the strikers, and established a national movement for the unionisation of casual workers.

The three dock systems were unified in 1909 when the Port of London Authority took control of the docks. With the docks stretching across from East to West with locks at each end, the Isle of Dogs could now once again almost be described as a genuine island.

Dock workers settled on the "island" as the docks grew in importance, and by 1901, 21,000 people lived there, largely dependent on the river trade on the Isle as well as in Greenwich and Deptford across the river to the south and west. The Isle of Dogs was connected to the rest of London by the London and Blackwall Railway, opened in 1840 and progressively extended thereafter. In 1902, the ferry to Greenwich was replaced by the construction of the Greenwich foot tunnel, and Island Gardens park was laid out in 1895 providing views across the river. The London and Blackwall Railway closed in 1926. Until the building of the Docklands Light Railway in 1987, the only public transport accessing and exiting the Island consisted of buses using its perimeter roads. These were frequently and substantially delayed by the movement of up to four bridges which allowed ships access to the West India Docks and Millwall Docks. The insular nature of the Island caused its separateness from the rest of London, and its unique nature.

During World War II, the docks were a key target for the German Luftwaffe and were heavily bombed. A significant number of local civilians were killed in the bombing and extensive destruction was caused on the ground, with many warehouses being totally destroyed and much of the dock system being put out of action for an extended period. Unexploded bombs from this period continue to be discovered today.[11] Anti-aircraft batteries were based on Mudchute farm; their concrete bases remain today.[12]

After the war, the docks underwent a brief resurgence and were even upgraded in 1967. However, with the advent of containerisation, which the docks could not handle, they became obsolete soon afterwards. The docks closed progressively during the 1970s, with the last – the West India and Millwall docks – closing down in 1980. This left the area in a severely dilapidated state, with large areas being derelict and abandoned.


The Docks brought with them many associated industries, such as flour and sugar processing, and also ship building. On 31 January 1858 the largest ship of that time, the SS Great Eastern designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was launched from the yard of Messrs Scott, Russell & Co, of Millwall. The 211 metres (692 ft) length was too big for the river so the ship had to be launched sideways. Due to the technical difficulties of the launch this was the last big ship to be built on the Island and the industry fell into a decline. However, parts of the launching slipway and plate works have been preserved in situ and may be seen close to Masthouse Terrace Pier.

London Docklands Development Corporation

The Isle of Dogs' economic problems led to mass unemployment among the former dockyard workers and caused serious social deprivation. The local community highlighted its problems on 3 March 1970 by declaring the Isle of Dogs to be an "independent republic", with its own elected president, community leader Ted Johns.[13] Successive Labour and Conservative governments proposed a number of action plans during the 1970s but it was not until 1981 that the London Docklands Development Corporation was established to redevelop the area. The Isle of Dogs became part of an enterprise zone, which covered 1.95 km² of land and encompassed the West India, Millwall and East India Docks. New housing was built, as was new office space and new transport infrastructure. This included the Docklands Light Railway and later the Jubilee line extension, which eventually brought access to the London Underground to the area for the first time.

Since its construction in 1987-1991, the area has been dominated by the expanding Canary Wharf development with over 14 million square feet (437,000 m²) of office and retail space having been created; 93,000 now work in Canary Wharf alone.[14]

LDDC legacy

It has been argued by some that the redevelopment has not benefited the long-term residents as much as it might, with accusations of a "land grab" of riverside sites for private apartment blocks during the period of relaxation of planning conditions under the LDDC.[15] Some tensions remain, as in most areas of central London, between the close-knit island community and professionals who have more recently moved to the area. Today, this revolves around the former's need for family homes, against further development of small high-priced apartments.[16]


The Island achieved notoriety in 1993 when Derek Beackon of the British National Party became a councillor for Millwall ward, in a by election. This was the culmination of years of resentment by local residents of perceived neglect by both Liberal Democrat and Labour Party politicians.[17] Labour regained the ward in the full council election of May 1994, and held all three seats until a further by election in September 2004.


A secondary school, called Deptford

  • Greenwich
  • Limehouse
  • Poplar
  • Rotherhithe
  • Stepney
  • London Underground and DLR stations

    The nearest London Underground station is Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line.

    The DLR runs north-south through the Isle of Dogs. Docklands Light Railway stations are Canary WharfCrossharbourHeron QuaysIsland GardensMudchutePoplarSouth Quay and West India Quay.

    London bus routes

    River bus services

    Currently, the only river boat pier on the island is Masthouse Terrace pier. The regular boat services are provided by Thames Clipper, Canary Wharf Pier, situated at the Canary Riverside, just north of the island is the other nearest pier. Thames Clipper provide regular commuter services to Woolwich Arsenal Pier, Greenwich Pier in the east and the City of London: St. Katherine's Dock, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Greater London Authority building, Tate Modern, Blackfriars and the West End of London in the west on the commuter service, as well as a shuttle service to Rotherhithe and the Tate to Tate service from Tate Modern to Tate Britain via London Eye. From Summer 2007, the service has been enhanced with express boats[18] from central London to the O2 Arena (former Millennium Dome).

    Pedestrian and cyclists

    The Thames Path National Trail runs along the riverside. At the southern end of the Isle of Dogs, the Greenwich foot tunnel provides pedestrian access to Greenwich, across the river.

    National Cycle Network route 1 runs through the foot tunnel (although cycles must not be ridden in the tunnel itself).

    In the media

    The Isle of Dogs was the title of an early play by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe, briefly performed in 1597 and then thoroughly suppressed as slanderous.

    The Isle of Dogs was the location used for the Northern Lights Hotel in the book by Sebastian Barry called The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. And into this hotel they received the 'general flotsam of the great port river of life'.

    In modern times the Isle of Dogs has provided locations for many blockbuster films, including the opening scenes of the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, and more recently Batman Begins, The Constant Gardener, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Love Actually.

    In the film 28 Weeks Later, the Isle of Dogs is the primary location of the film, being the only secure and quarantined area in all of Britain suitable for recivilization after a massive epidemic of the "Rage Virus" kills the entire population of Britain.

    In the television show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Waverly's private blend of pipe tobacco was called Isle of Dogs #22.

    The Pulp song "Mile End" (1996) features the lyrics "The pearly king of the Isle of Dogs, feels up children in the bogs."

    The Squeeze song "Misadventure" (1980) contains a line beginning "From the Isle of Dogs to the Egyptian sands..."

    British rock band Iron Maiden used an abandoned house on the Isle of Dogs as the setting for their 1984 anti-nuclear themed 2 Minutes to Midnight video. Maiden lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson claimed to have lived in that very house before becoming successful, recognizing it from promo photos the video's producers brought to the band in pre-production.

    British jazz trio The Recedents published the album Zombie Bloodbath on the Isle of Dogs in 1988.

    The Isle of Dogs was also the setting for the 1986 Channel 4 series Prospects starring Gary Olsen and Brian Bovell.

    The Isle of Dogs was referred to in the track Peace of Mind, the last track on the Second Album by British group Curved Air. The reference occurs at about 8 minutes and 20 seconds into the track.

    See also

    References and notes

    1. ^ a b c d e f g h The Isle of Dogs: Introduction, Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994), pp. 375-87 accessed: 9 February 2007
    2. ^ "E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (1898)". Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
    3. ^ Tower Hamlets website
    4. ^ "An Account of the Hamlet of Poplar, in Middlesex". The Universal magazine. East London History Society. June 1795. Retrieved 19 September 2011. It is opposite Greenwich in Kent; and when our sovereigns had a palace near the site of the present magnificent hospital, they used it as a hunting-seat, and, it is said, kept the kennels of their hounds in this marsh. These hounds frequently making a great noise, the seamen called the place the Isle of Dogs. 
    5. ^ a b [1]
    6. ^ Tower Hamlets Borough Council Election Maps 1964-2002 accessed: 9 February 2007
    7. ^ Welcome to the Canary Wharf Group plc website
    8. ^ Isle of Dogs Community Foundation report August 2004 indicates that Blackwall was in the most deprived 1% of wards
    9. ^ Ward Data Report Theme 3: Creating & sharing prosperity (Tower Hamlets Partnership, 2004) accessed 2 May 2008
    10. ^ John Burns is commemorated in the name given to a current Woolwich Ferry)
    11. ^ "World War II bomb found at Canary Wharf". BBC News. 28 July 2007. 
    12. ^ "Mudchute in WWII". Mudchute Park & Farm. Retrieved 19 February 2013. 
    13. ^ Obituary of Ted Johns Guardian 12 May 2004 accessed 13 February 2007
    14. ^ Welcome to the Canary Wharf Group plc website
    15. ^ James Steele, "The Market and Meaning in Contemporary British Architecture" accessed 13 February 2007
    16. ^ "Now we're all upwardly mobile" in Regenerate Live, February 2006. Accessed 13 February 2007.
    17. ^ BBC "on this day" report accessed: 17 April 2007
    18. ^ "Travelling to The O2". ThamesClippers. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 


    • Eve Hostettler, The Isle of Dogs: 1066–1918: A Brief History, Volume I (London: Island History Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-9508815-4-6
    • Eve Hostettler, The Isle of Dogs: The Twentieth Century: A Brief History, Volume II (London: Island History Trust, 2001) ISBN 0-9508815-5-4

    External links

    • Island Heritage & History Trust
    • Isle of Dogs landscape architecture
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