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.
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