History of Canning Town East London

Like large parts of the East End, Canning Town once had a strong industrial heritage, but the area was originally marshland. As such, for many centuries, the only way to reach Canning Town was to boat or by paying to use a toll bridge. The area opened up in the early 19th century when the Barking Road was built. This brought with it a larger bridge and more opportunities for connections with the rest of East London.

Before the reign of Queen Victoria, Canning Town had no real significance and it did not even get its name until the Victorian period. It is probably named after Charles Canning. He was a relatively famous and popular character at the time as he had successfully managed the Indian Mutiny in his role as Viceroy of India. Once the area started to be developed, however, it turned into a busy industrial and commercial hub.

Visit Canning Town in East London.

For example, in 1846, the North London train line brought higher levels of industrialisation to this area of the East End. Originally built to transport supplies from the local docks, the opening of the Barking Road passenger station, together with more housing construction, attracted more workers to the area’s chemical, shipbuilding and sugar refining factories. The football team that started in the local ironworks famously went on to become West Ham FC.

By 1855, Canning Town also had a new dock, the Royal Victoria Dock. However, the local water supply and sewage system was not designed to cope with the increasing number of local residents and businesses, and Canning Town became infamous for its slum living conditions, high poverty levels and outbreaks of smallpox and cholera due to its inadequate sanitary conditions.

History of Canning Town’s New Docks

London Docklands and Canary Wharf

London Docklands and Canary Wharf

The increased docklands and shipping activities brought in a new influx of local and overseas workers who needed housing, including a significant community of West African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants. At one point, Canning Town was home to the largest black community in London with over 100 families living in the area.

Many of the capital’s more dangerous industries were historically located in the East End, safely out of the way of the city of London and its more upmarket central areas. Charles Dickens described some of these industries as “offensive”.

This probably relates to the smells they created, as local businesses worked in gut spinning, varnish production and oil boiling at the time. Operating outside of the regulations of the city itself also made it easier for businesses to ignore housing and business regulations, sometimes leading to accidents.

Canning Town was no exception to this rule and the area was affected by a significant accidental explosion at an ammunition factory in nearby Silvertown. Although this accident resulted in a relatively low loss of life, it damaged tens of thousands of local buildings around the East End.

Housing in Canning Town

By the 1930s, housing conditions in Canning Town were so dire that the local council started a program to clear the slums and to provide better social conditions for local residents. Many slum properties were torn down, and new houses, nurseries, medical clinics and even a lido opened in the area. The Second World War also badly affected the area and led to further redevelopment initiatives after the war. Much of the East End was a prime target for German bombers and it is estimated that over 85% of local housing stock was destroyed.

Canning Town was also the scene of one of the worst bombing events in the war, although a government cover up at the time hid the full extent of the incident. In September 1940, local residents were sheltering in the basement of South Hallsville School during an air raid. They were staying in the school because they had been evacuated from their homes.

The school suffered from a direct hit burying all of the sheltering locals under piles of rubble. Reports at the time indicated that around 70 people died in the incident, but it is now believed that close to 600 people died on the site making this the worst civilian casualty rate in a bombing raid during the war.

Modern History: Canning Town Redevelopment

Due to redevelopment programs and damage sustained in the war, much of the housing in and around Canning Town is relatively modern; most rebuilding took the form of new council estates, including a number of high-rise tower blocks, which were popular at the time.

One high-rise block became well-known in the 1960s for all the wrong reasons when a gas explosion caused an entire corner of the block to collapse. It and its surrounding high-rises were demolished to make way for safer, and smaller, houses and the lessons learned from this accident changed the way that high-rises were built. Canning Town still remains a relatively deprived area and is undergoing continuing redevelopment.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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Posted in East End Locations

35 comments on “History of Canning Town East London
  1. Dee says:

    Pat Jolly I know a Brian Jolly who now lives in Cornwall but whose famy are from Canning Town. Any relation? I am trying to find a connection between his family and mine and was interested to see your comment about Jolly’s Greengrocers. My Grandad Parker had a Greengrocers shop as did his parents. They were bombed out during the war and moved to Essex. My Gt Aunt bought a house in Goodmayes and we went to live with her. She was in the rag trade and did business with a lot of Jewish people. I use to do fashions shows at Bodgers as my babysitter worked there!

    • pat jolly says:

      Hi Dee
      I cannot say for definite if Brian Jolly is a branch of my family or not..My grandfather and great granfather didnt seem to keep closr ties with their siblings..So i know very little about them..My gt grandfsthrr came from Suffolk and he must have had siblings but they are all a mystery to me..So sorry cant help you..x

  2. David Bradley says:

    Malcolm, I believe that the shop Vicki remembers was called Murkoff’s in the Barking Rd along where the Ordnance Pub was, the best Ice Cream I have ever tasted.
    I lived in Rogers Rd.

  3. Vicki Coppell says:

    Pat, the shop I remember did sell ice cream through a window at the front of the shop. Just mentioned this story to my husband and he says the shop is where you say but he doesn’t remember what it was called.He also thinks I may have got my memories mixed up and that Rossi’s ice cream was sold in Southend. Does anyone know?
    My husband’s aunt used to have a toy stall in the market. She had the stall for quite a few years.

  4. Peter says:

    Born in Percy rd in1947, in a nissen hut.My nan lived in Rathbone st. when it was the market place, remember the live well stall, the fortune teller at the start of the road. Remember the street party for coronation day,won a model of a tractor for winning a race. Anyone got any photos.

    • Vicki Coppell says:

      Peter, yes I do remember Rathbone St. market. I went to Clarkson St school that backed onto the market. Used to spend lunch time in the market. Bought a pennorth of broken biscuits out of my lunch money and Horlicks and/or Fishermans Friend tablets. I also remember the live eel stall (I think that’s what you meant) and the sarsparella stall. The fortune teller singled me out by name one lunchtime (didn’t know her from Adam). This was a couple weeks before the eleven plus, she told me not to worry – that I would pass and go to grammar school. She also told me I would go far overseas to live (I have been in Australia since 1974) and have a family of three children. All that came to pass so I’m now hoping that her prophecy of a long life also comes to fruition 😀.
      Do you also remember Rossi’s ice cream just round the corner from the market. Best ice cream ever.

      • Pat Jolly says:

        Think you mean Murkoffs Ice Cream….

        • Vicki Coppell says:

          Maybe Pat but I only remember it as Rossi’s.

          • Pat Jolly says:

            hi Vicki…if it was the sweet shop next to the Ordnance arms pub and directly across the road to Canning Town Public Hall then it would be Murkoffs..they used to sell the ice cream outta the front window. They were Jewish and nade their own ice cream..
            There is a FB site called Memories of Canning Town that people put photos on. Murkoffs crops up from time to time.. Or i have a couple of pics..if you wanna see em i can Message them to you..let me know..

  5. Elizabeth Livingston says:

    I lived in Canning Town in flats called Mansfied Buildings in 1948-54. Are they still there. I now live in Australia. Left the UK in 1954 with my family.

    • Vicki Coppell says:

      I think those flats are what I remember as the Manot Road buildings. I think they came down under slum clearance.

  6. Meneesy says:

    My Grandmother was born in Malmesbury Road. I would love to know what housing looked like back in the 1890s as a huge proportion of her family lived in places like Swanscombe Street Woodstock Street. Wouldham Street and the list goes on. My Grandmother was of German descent, and her grandfather worked in sugar refining. Love to hear stories of this place.

  7. Denise kidd says:

    Is this the same Jollys greengrocer that had a shop on Hermit road Canning Town opposite the sweet shop Tarrants? I also lost my uncle in the Ronan Point explosion as well would love to know more details about a memorial 4 people died if my memory servers me right?

  8. Vicki Coppell says:

    Just a couple of facts to add to your article. The slum clearance in Canning Town/Custom House after WW2 resulted in the creation of what was known as the Keir Hardie Estate. The estate was named for James Keir Hardie, the first
    Labour MP and a member of the first Labour government, the Ramsey McDonald Labour government. He had previously been an independent and represented West Ham South in the early years of the 1900s.
    The ‘infamous’ towers you mentioned were Ronan Point, Patterson Point. There was a third but I’ve long forgotten the name. My sister-in-law lived in Patterson Point and it was Ronan Point that lost one corner of the top floors through an explosion. Local rumour had that someone was storing gelignite ‘under bed’ but the more prosaic reason for the explosion was probably a gas leak.
    The tower blocks were a cheap and nasty way of housing the less well off. From memory the grounds were not well looked after and the lifts always stank of urine. I was thankful that my family had been rehoused in a decent, attractive environment long before those monstrosities were built.

    • Pat Jolly says:

      I lived on the Kier Hardie Estate..from 1952…In Tarling Road near St Lukes church…I also know the Tower blocks you refer to, Merrit Point, Ronan Point Dodson Point Abrahams Point and several more. My sister lived in Merrit and I lived in Dodson…Ronan point was in fact a gas explosion it happened on the 15th floor…My dad’s cousin and his wife both died in the disaster…As a matter of fact i and a friend have been in contact for the last two years to have a memorial put in place for the victims…The area of Freemasons Road will be undergoing a large refurb to go along with the new Crossrail Line at Custom House Station…Newham Council have agreed to it…it is just a matter to decide where to place it…
      The Beckton area was reclaimed marshland..I also lived there from 1983 off Tollgate Road….Many properties today still suffer subsidence because of the ground..

      • Vicki Coppell says:

        Pat, I’m sorry you lost family in that Ronan Point disaster. I had moved away from the area by then but most of my family still lived off Freemasons Road. My sister-in-law lived in Patterson Point at the time of the explosion and my husband’s aunt lived in the third tower block. I remember only those three being there, perhaps the others were built at a later date.
        I moved from there to Chingford then to Walthamstow and on to Brentwood and finally left the country for good in 1974.

  9. Pat Jolly says:

    Hi Malcolm..I lived in Brunel Street off the Silvertown Way from 1946.. before moving to Tarling Road..My family name is Jolly, we were greengrocers and we had stalls down the old Rathbone Street, before taking over shosp in the early 50s. Our shop was just across the railway lines from the Victoria Dock…I have written a book about growing up in Canning Town…It’s called ‘A Jolly Time in Canning Town’ by me Patricia Jolly…..available on Amazon, Newham Bookshop and Waterstones…The heart has gone out of it now…but still i return often

    • Hello, thank you for your comment. I was born early ’70s and East London still seemed to be just about hanging onto the “old ways”. I remember seeing the derelict dock cranes, the rag and bone man on a horse and cart. Everything going silent for Remembrance Sunday at 11am.

      The pace of change nowadays is so rapid that I struggle to recognise parts of Ilford where I grew up. The rat runs my grandfather would drive to take us all to Kings Cross to visit his mum etc.

      • Pat Jolly says:

        You lived in Ilford eh…In my younger days Ilford was ‘posh’…lot of money people there…A lot of Jewish people lived there…Jewish people loved a fur coat..My aunt had a mink fur coat and a mink fur jacket made over Ilford…Being as my family were in business they mixed with other business families and one of them was Jewish..The lady if that family took my aunt to the furriers and told him what my aunt wanted..Then she said the skins had to be female mink…My aunt didn’t argue..Apparently female mink is softer that male mink…My aunt is now 92.. She wanted me to have her fur coats..they woulda been too small for me, but i suggested that my cousin would like them…It was only recently that they were given to my cousin. I found the bill for the Full length coat dating back to 1967.. £3,000.. My aunt only wore it a few times..then left it in the wardrobe cos the animal rights people were throwing paint over people wearing fur coats in the 70s…I used to like shopping in Bodgers…they did nice stuff..

        • My grandmother used to clean a house for a Jewish lady who lived in Gants Hill. I still remember the lady’s name to this day. My grandparents lived near Kings Cross station and moved to Ilford in the very early ’60s. Certainly was a step up from their tiny flat in a Victorian block in Tonbridge House.

  10. I heard in Barking St that there treasure they left..some of them are dimposed but this woman never tell to just landlord but they digged n breakfast the Brick ..there’s some left according to my knownfriend ..the woman keeps this not report to police or counselled bec of the woman intention..how can you the treasure find this tresure ..to detected gusto treasure..

  11. john charles shaw says:

    My grandfather was born in Canning Town in December 1875, his name was Charlie Thomas Shaw as was his father and his mother was Annie Jack. My grandfather immigrated to Australia late 1800 early 1900s.My aim is to come over there when I retire and try and find a little more of his background, if there is anyone who know or connected to this family I would love to hear from you.

  12. Medina Bell (nee Hopewell) says:

    Hi my grandfather lined in bengeo st two streets away from Canary Wharf , their surname was Hopewell my grandmother was Mary Ann my grandfather was John Edward my dad was one of 12 him being th last born , I could not even imagine what life must have been like,

  13. Mandy says:

    Hi. We have hodgetts family ho ived in canningtown

  14. Susan says:

    I’m youngest of 10 kids I’m now coming up 58 my mother was one of 12 kids she was born 1919 her dad was in the boer and WW1 and was a warden in the 2nd growing up in Canning Town and custom house was the best time of me life we had sod all but we had family and true proper people.. Have to go a long way to find the kind of people that come from that place.. Times AV changed around that place now pubs where all the memories of the jolly ups have gone! The rows and rows of the old vic house where I once lived have gone but a trip down memory lane brings back all the old characters names faces and places.. My home my town Canning Town my kind of people x

    • terry hulme says:

      my name terry I was born in canning town I came from a family of five kids I was the youngest we move into house just as the war ended I was born in 56 and the area still look like a bomb site but I love it and still do even so I now live in norfolk

  15. Vicki Coppell says:

    Malcolm, I have just posted a comment on the site re the South Hallsville school disaster. I am puzzled as to why the area is referred to as Canning Town when our address in Murray Square was Custom House E16, in fact all of that area was Custom House down to the Lido on Becton Rd. When did Custom House lose its identity?

  16. Dee says:

    My Mother’s family came from Canning Town. My Gt Grandfather was a Dockworker. All 7 children were born in the early 1900’s and I know life was hard for them. They lived in Beckton Road and went to Holborn Road School. It affected them in different ways; some had no children and lived indulgent lives and the others had many children and lived frugally.
    I am amazed they all came through both World Wars unscathed. My Mother was born in 1939 in West Ham but after WW2 most of my family moved away from the area to places like Essex.
    My Grandparents and all my Gt Aunts and Uncles have now passed on and I regret not finding out more whilst they were still alive; I now rely on sites like these to help me paint a picture of what life must have been like for my East End relatives.

    • I grew up in Ilford as you may have read, so know those areas very well. My parents are post war babies but my grandparents had plenty of stories to tell. Likewise we as a family migrated to Essex before then moving all over the UK. I’m in Devon now.

      • Vicki Coppell says:

        Malcolm, I was born in Forest Gate, as a baby lived in Oakdale Road, evacuated to Somerset, back to Forest Gate then were rehoused to Murray Square, Custom House. I’m still puzzled as to why that area is referred to as Canning Town. In the early 70s I moved to Brentwood and from there to Australia. My husband and I now live in Victoria but we’re spending Christmas with our daughter and her family in Darwin. It is hot,muggy and very wet right now. Happy Christmas to you and all your blog friends.😊😊😊

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