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Poplar History up to the 19th Century


St Matthias Church, Poplar, 1866

Poplar, in Domesday times was part of the Manor of Stepney, which belonged to the Bishop of London. The name has been found spelt as Popeler, Popler and Popelar. One of the theories put forward was that the name referred to the number of poplar trees growing in the area, but there is no real evidence to support this. Another theory was that a single tree grew on the rising ground north of the Isle of Dogs, which was visible from the river, providing a sighting point for travellers.

The earliest reference to the manor of Popelar comes in 1396 when the manor was reverted by William de Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, Sir Aubrey de Vere and others to the Abbey of St Mary of Graces, Tower Hill. The land was leased out to various people, among them the Black Prince, who spent some time in Poplar. During this time, the Chapel in the Marsh was built. This little chapel served the people living on the Isle of Dogs, mainly farmers, who during Tudor times successfully farmed the land. The great flood of 1449 caused tremendous damage to the houses and land, and the chapel was abandoned. It was later used as a farm building, and the ruins could be seen until the building of the Millwall Docks in the 1860s.

During the reign of Henry VIII, with the dissolution of the monasteries, the manor remained with the crown, but eventually granted out to various worthy people. There is a lot of confusion regarding the Manor of Poplar and the Manor House of Poplar, which was owned and occupied separately: Sir Gilbert Dethick was granted the Manor House and an acre of land in Poplar by Henry VIII. His son Sir William Dethick was born in Poplar in 1543, and was knighted by James 1. William's son Henry in turn played a prominent part in Poplar's affairs. He also contributed to the funds to erect the Company chapel, later known as St Matthias.

Early maps show houses mainly along the High Street, North Street and Bow Lane. Blackwall had dwellings along the Causeway and Cold Harbour. Trade and industry appeared to be mainly connected with the ship yards. That the High Street was the only route from the City of London to Blackwall and served travellers and seafarers journeying to and from the ship yards is reflected in the fact that at one time there were upwards of twentyseven inns and taverns along the High Street and a further fifteen at Blackwall. The Hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall first came into prominence with the founding of the East India Company in 1600 and the establishment of its offices at Blackwall twelve years later. Since then the district's history has been largely bound up with ships and shipping.

It was the East India Company who was responsible for Poplar's first church. In 1654 they erected their Poplar Chapel on the north side of Poplar High Street. Some years earlier the company had built a hospital or almshouse for 'maymed men or relief of orphans or widows' close by. The company maintained the almshouses (rebuilt in 1802) until 1866, when the land was sold to the Poplar District Board of Works, and their chapel transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, when it became the church of the new ecclesiastical parish of St Matthias. The arms of the company can still be seen in the ceiling of the church, which has recently been refurbished by English Heritage and the LDDC and is now used as a Community Hall.

The first of three docks to be built within the parish opened in 1802, when the West India Docks was inaugurated in the presence of Henry Addington, the Prime Minister. On August 4th, 1806, the East India Docks opened against a colourful background provided by the East India Company's second regiment of volunteers, supported by flank companies of two other regiments and some 500 carriages 'with feminine beauty and fashion'.

In the year 1817 the parish of All Saints, Poplar, was created after a petition was made to Parliament by the residents. Until then it formed part of the parish of Stepney, with St Dunstan's the parish church. The first stone of the new parish church, All Saints, was laid by the Bishop of London on 29th March 1821 and the church was consecrated in 1823. It is an imposing and handsome building with a 161 foot high steeple, thought to have been copied from Gibbs. The church was designed by Charles Hollis and built by Thomas Morris of Blackwall, but Second World War damage made it necessary for the interior to be remodelled in the 1950s.

Life in Poplar in the 1820s centred around the High Street, North Street, Pennyfields and Blackwall. East India Dock Road had only recently been constructed and was originally called East India Road. It ran through fields and market gardens from its junction with Commercial Road at Limehouse to the Iron Bridge over the River Lea. The only significant cluster of dwellings was Canton Place on the north side of the road. One of the fine houses here was 'Howrah House', built by shipowner Duncan Dunbar as a residence about 1790, and which afterwards became a convent, when it was bought in 1882 by the Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.

Robin Hood Lane and Naval Row, in the vicinity of East India Docks, had some of the meanest dwellings, and was one of the most densely populated pockets. It also had two warehouses, stables, a carpenters shop and the East India Company's waggon shed. Nearby Blackwall had numerous houses in Brunswick Street (now Blackwall Way), Cold Harbour and the small adjoining streets. Much of this was swept away in the building of the Blackwall Tunnel, completed in 1897. Further east, along the tortuous sweep of the River Lea a significant habitation had grown up around Orchard House. This close-knit group of families served the Thames Ironworks and the glassworks, as well as the many shipyards of Blackwall.

The Isle of Dogs, which only twenty years earlier had been mainly marsh land, was now the site of the West India Docks, and the rest was open fields. Millwall Docks would not be built for another sixty years. While a few houses and buildings were dotted along turnings off the High Street, the main area of habitation was on the west side, along Millwall, from the entrance to the docks down to the Ferry House.

The number of houses in the new parish of All Saints in 1818 was quoted by a local newspaper (based on the rate survey) as 1,476 with 7,708 inhabitants. The census figures three years later showed that there were 12,223 inhabitants occupying 2,020 houses. This rapid expansion continued throughout the 19th century.

Although the majority of the population in the 1820s was of the poorer working class, there were also a number of well-to-do and even wealthy families, mainly connected with ship-building and the shipyards. The Greens and the Wigrams lived at Blackwall for several generations. Duncan Dunbar, merchant and ship-builder, who lived at Canton Place, owned warehouses along Narrow Street. His fine ships were all built at Calcutta. High Street Poplar housed the 'better class' of people. The houses here were larger, the rateable values being from five to seven times as much as those situated in the little side turnings. High Street was the street of taverns, and indeed Poplar and Blackwall boasted of an extraordinary number of inns and taverns, no doubt catering to the itinerant seafaring population. On the south side were the Green Man, Black Horse, Spotted Dog, Harrow, Rising Sun, Ship and Captain Man of War, whilst on the north side stood the White Hart, Angel, Sun and Sawyers, Red Lion, Green Dragon, Old General Blakeney, Queen's Head and the White Horse.

An imposing building on the north side of the High Street at this time was John Stock's Academy, sometimes known as Poplar College. It had a garden and lawn, with a bath, probably a pool or fish pond, with three acres of land adjoining. It stood to the east of Poplar chapel and almshouses. In Newby Place stood Arm Newby's residence, complete with stables, garden and seven acres of land, which she gifted to the parish for the building of the new parish church. On the site of her house there now stands the Rectory of All Saints Church.

Another large building on the south side of the High Street was the Workhouse. The census also indicates a large number of single occupants in the East India Company's Almshouses.

Much of Poplar was still open farmland and market gardens. The survey in 1817 showed Mary Marchant with a farmyard and fourteen acres of land in North Street, and nearby Richard Smith occupied nine acres. There were others with varying parcels of land, like Stephen Wharton, who owned eight acres in Cottage Place and Jane Mew, who owned six acres in the High Street. Jethro Farran had his house and blacksmith's shop in Bow Lane (now Bazely Street), which then extended across East India Dock Road and followed the line of the present Follett Street.

Only two roads led north from the High Street. One, North Street, continued for a few hundred yards before turning into a cart track and losing itself in Bow Common. The other, Bow Lane, now Bazely Street, continued northwards into what is now Ida Street, then curved round to join Robin Hood Lane. A few years later it extended to Bromley Hall. The cottages numbered I6 Bow Lane, whose occupants were all elderly women, were the almshouses bequeathed by Hester Hawes.

On the south side of East India Dock Road, in what is now Mallam Gardens, stood the Manor House which had been rebuilt in 1810. It was owned by Mary Wade, widow of Jeremiah Shirbutt Wade, and her five daughters. In 1821, Catharine Wade is shown as residing in the Manor House. The family had already given its name to two streets, Wade Street and Wade's Place. By the mid-1850's this was to increase to no less than sixteen streets. Cottage Place and Cottage Row formed another area of high occupancy. These cottages all had front and rear gardens and up to the late 19th century lent an air of country life to what was rapidly becoming one of the most densely populated suburbs of London. Limehouse was devoted almost entirely to industry, a mast house, boat building sheds, oil mills and warehouses, carpenters' amd plumbers' shops, corn chandlers and other buildings. Taverns were the Royal Oak, Shipwrights Arms and Antigalican. Limehouse Hole had a cluster of poorer dwellings with high occupancy.

Brunswick Street, now Blackwall Way, although mainly residential contained Richard Emery's cooperage, Gagen and Groves livestock sheds and fodder warehouses, Ashton's wharf and the famous Blackwall Yard, at that time owned by Wigram, Green and Company. Change was already evident at Blackwall in 1821, the year when the first steam vessel, the paddle-wheel steamer, City of Edinboro' launched for the Edinboro' Steam Navigation Company, was constructed in the yard. The previous year, George Green had taken over the yard in partnership with Money Wigram and Henry Loftus Wigram. George Green was soon to devote a large portion of his wealth to improving conditions in Poplar. He built schools, almshouses and a large Chapel in the East India Dock Road. Blackwall was perhaps Poplar's busiest spot, and taverns such as the George, Ship, Shoulder of Mutton and Pig, Old Hob and the Globe, the Artichoke , Plough, Kings Arms, Britannia and East India House catered for the workers at the ship yards and seafarers in search of a ship or a good time after many months at sea. Nearby Cold Harbour had the Gun and the Fishing Smack.

Copyright Rosemary Taylor 1996 Chair, East London History Society


Early 20th Century Poplar History


Poplar High Street, 1912

Early in the 20th century, Poplar was to make its mark on the national scene in two quite distinct ways. One was the birth of 'Poplarism'; the other was the invention of the street party. The ancient riverside village of Poplar grew rapidly after 1806, when the building of the East India Dock began. Its fastest growth, and that of the overspill area of Canning Town on the eastern bank of the Lea, took place with the building of the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 and the growth of the river- and canal-side manufacturing industries in the 1850s to 1880s. A major employer was the Thames Iron Works, successor to ship-building and repairing businesses which since the 1830s had operated on both the Middlesex and Essex shores at the river's mouth, and kept a 200-man ferry constantly plying between the two shores. The shipyards closed in 1912, just as the Port of London Authority, established in 1908, was beginning its rationalisation of the docks, in what would be their declining years. Poplar Borough Council came into being in 1900, in place of three parish vestries. The parishes were Poplar itself and St Leonard, Bromley and St Mary Stratford, Bow, to the north. The Poplar vestry in particular had always been innovative in the field of public works. It was among the first London authorities to build public baths and wash-houses; and it embraced the concept of free public libraries with greater enthusiasm than most. Its first library, on Poplar High Street, which opened in 1896, was paid for year by year from the rates but built with Passmore Edwards capital. (Bromley Library, now marooned on the near-motorway superimposed on Brunswick Road, was barely begun when the new borough council took office.) Poplar sanitation was better than most, despite vagaries in the water supply; mortality- except in infants-was surprisingly low. Even the Poor Law Guardians, who administered the workhouse, acquired a reputation for greater humanitarianism than their equivalents in the neighbouring districts. Philanthropic concern was a tradition of a local leadership conscious, within the spirit of the times, that its wealth depended on the labour of others. The shipbuilding family Wigram were associated with the foundation of St Saviour's School in what is now Northumbria Street; George Green, another shipbuilder, endowed the school that bears his name, and also a sailors' home, in the elegant building that later became Board of Trade Offices, at 133 East India Dock Road. The Poplar Hospital, primarily for accident cases, was founded in 1855 by Samuel Gurney and others, and efficiently run on local subscriptions. The founders were alarmed at the number of accidents in the shipbuilding yards, more than three miles from the London Hospital, and had been spurred into action by the case of a shipbuilding worker who bled to death from a compound fracture before he could be got to Whitechapel. The Thames Iron Works had a good reputation for labour relations. They even maintained two works bands. The new generation of Labour councillors who took office after the end of the 1914-1918 war were determined that the council should set an example as a model socialist employer, in a context where post-war unemployment had supervened on the closure of the shipbuilding works, and local hardship was severe. Almost a third of the adult male population were labourers, and more than half of these were employed, if at all, on a casual day by day basis in the docks, or on regular but very low wages. The new council introduced a minimum industrial wage; furthermore, it insisted on paying men and women employees equally. The way in which poor relief was financed cast most of the burden on to local ratepayers, many of whom were little better off than those the system was intended to help. Thus the courts characterised the councillors as pursuing 'eccentric principles of socialistic philanthropy'; and 'Poplarism' came to be defined as 'the policy of giving out-relief on a generous or extravagant scale;... any similar policy which lays a heavy burden on ratepayers'. Yet the running battle which the councillors waged with the Government and the London County Council, withholding rates payable to these authorities for other services, eventually achieved poor law reform, after the councillors had been imprisoned for their cause. Several of the councillors' leaders-including Will Crooks, John Scurr and Susan Lawrence - are commemorated in new schools and housing developments. Most notably there is the immense estate, practically a new town, named after George Lansbury, which formed a major element in the Festival of Britain proposals of 1951 for post-war reconstruction. Both in Lansbury-which contains examples illustrating most stages of development in late 20th century thinking about public housing -and more generally, only fragments remain of the fabric of the Poplar whose people the councillors fought for. That so little physical evidence remains of the 19th century housing bears witness to the lack of affection in which it was held. The terraces "stretched out in an endless procession, as alike as peas in a pod, with no individuality whatever. Each front window was draped with lace curtains looped back sufficiently to reveal an aspidistra in an art pot bravely facing whatever light might penetrate the dark interior of the parlour, made still more dark by the venetian blinds... Each front door was exactly like its neighbour. The street was deadly monotonous in appearance" (E.M.Page in East London Papers). The description is of Blair Street; but it could well be any street on the Mcintosh estate, laid out over twenty years from the early 1860s, a huge speculation stretching from St Leonard's Road eastward, on what had been Mcintosh's farm. The owner's Scottish ancestry is still reflected in street names which once formed a near-complete alphabet from Ailsa to Zetiand. When in the 1920s 32 acres of the estate came on the market, it was estimated that it contained about a thousand houses and 4 miles of street frontage, and produced some 5600 of income annually. To many residents the area not only looked depressing; it smelt unpleasant. The noxious industries - blood and bone boiling, glue-making, soap-making - that had gathered to the south east of Bow Common in the early 19th century were, in the early 20th, seemingly well-established here. The Far-Famed Cake Company's premises in Rifle Street were close, as the wind blew, to the oakum works in Ellesmere Street as well as to Broomfield Street, home of the Fish Guano Company. Of the numerous factories making paint, varnish, tar, chemicals, rubber, metal casks and gas mantles, which lined the Limehouse Cut between the Regent's Canal and the Lea, today only Spratt's dog biscuit factory survives, and has been converted into flats. Smells from smaller enterprises in residential streets were just as much part of the scene. Residents in Blair Street, a block to the north of the East India Dock, were all too aware of the effect of having to the westward not only a rag and bone shop in Albert Street, with a backyard full of decaying bones; but also a cat's meat shop in St Leonard's Street, which regaled the neighbourhood with the aroma of boiling horseflesh. The best addresses in the area shown on the map were in Barking Road and, even more so, East India Dock Road. It is to these 'fashionable parts' that Bill Napper's wife aspires to move when, in Arthur Morrison's story Squire Napper(1901), her paviour husband receives a modest legacy. Instead, they leave their two rooms in Canning Town for a five-roomed house. The sharing of a small house between two (or occasionally more) households was typical of both sides of the Lea. There were few flats. The five hundred or so contained in Grosvenor Buildings between Wells and Manisty Streets, where in 1915 the poverty of the tenants induced a rent strike, were built in 1885 on land cleared, by the Metropolitan Board of Works, of two hundred old and insanitary dwellings, including a farmhouse on Robin Hood Lane. The site is now occupied by 'Robin Hood Gardens'. Today not only factories but a church (St Michael and All Angels in St Leonard's Road) and the former offices at 133 East India Dock Road, survive only by resort to residential conversion. A handful of the handsome buildings of the London School Board are left, as are a scattering of 19th century pubs. One of the most notable of these is the African Tavern in Grundy Street, designed about 1860 by a prolific local architect, T.W.Fletcher. But Poplar was never as well-provided with pubs as neighbouring Stepney. Away from the main roads, there were a few in the streets around Grundy Street that had been laid out by 1860; but as housing was developed northwards and eastwards, and over the Lea, they were provided even more thinly. The area was even more short of open space. Municipal activity had secured gardens in the precincts of St Matthias's and All Saints' churches, but there was no large open space and no capacious assembly hall. When, in 1918, the mayor of Poplar, the popular Methodist preacher W.H.Lax, decided that the 41,000 children of Poplar deserved a celebratorv 'peace tea', he concluded that there was nowhere to hold the events except the children's own home streets. And thus the street party was born.
Copyright lsobel Watson.