Poplar: A Historical and Cultural Guide to East London

Poplar is an area in East London steeped in history and culture. It is situated in the borough of Tower Hamlets and is home to a diverse community that has played a vital role in shaping the area’s character and identity. Poplar in London is best known as the setting for the famous Call the Midwife books and TV series. But this area of the East End has much more history than that.

It was the location for some of the worst damage inflicted on this area of London in both world wars and can even lay claim to being the home of one of the most famous pirates of the 17th century.

The early history of Poplar

Like much of London’s East End, Poplar started as a rural village or hamlet. Originally known as the manor of Popeler, the area was given to the Abbey of St Mary de Graces in the late 1300s by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester. Later, it became the property of Charles II when he was invested as Prince of Wales.

Poplar East London Pub
Poplar East London Pub

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Poplar

As London grew, areas like Poplar became more populated and industrialised. Poplar was the home of many docks, including the large East and West India dock sites and played a significant role in London’s life as a port. The area was home to many sea-related industries, including warehousing, shipbuilding and rope-making. The East India Company built the area’s church in the 1650s. Originally called the Poplar Chapel, this church is now called St. Matthias Old Church and operates as a community centre.

The Poplar Pirate

In the 1600s, an unlikely pirate, John Mucknell, lived in Poplar. He was initially born in Stepney but moved to the area with his wife after marriage. Originally, a commander serving on a ship for the East India Company, Mucknell became known as the “King’s Pirate”. During the English Civil War, he sided with Charles I in his fight against the Puritans.

Mucknell seized the ship under his command and started life as a pirate, disrupting trade around the English coast. He banded together with other local pirates on the south coast of England and flew the flag of the King on his ship.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion

The borough of Poplar was home to the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921. Rather than being a significant rebellion, this was a protest against property taxes. George Lansbury led it with the support of the local council. Lansbury had been the Mayor of Poplar and would later become the leader of the Labour Party.

Like many East End London boroughs, Poplar was relatively poverty-stricken at this time. The Poor Law rules meant that the borough had to manage issues like unemployment and poverty without support or funding from the central government. The only way that local councils could do this was to raise money by charging property rates.

The problem was that poor boroughs like Poplar had to charge high rates to raise the necessary money, which residents and local business people could not afford to pay. More prosperous boroughs could charge lower rates to raise identical sums of cash, even though they had little need of the money compared to areas like Poplar.

The rebellion started because people thought all rates should be charged equally and poor areas such as Poplar should not be penalised for poverty. It included a protest procession of 2,000 locals, and eventually, other boroughs said they would join forces with Poplar if things did not change. An Act of parliament ultimately took note of local feeling and changed the system to make it fairer to all areas.

Poplar in the Wars

Poplar suffered from bomb damage in both the First and Second World Wars. Due to its proximity to the docks, Poplar and the rest of London’s East End suffered severely in the Blitz during the Second World War and was badly damaged by several V1 and V2 raids. However, the area was also affected badly during the First World War. Initially, the Germans used night-time Zeppelin raids to bomb the docklands areas, causing some damage to Poplar and killing some civilians.

The worst incident of the First World War happened in June 1917 with the first daytime attacks on London. A fleet of Gotha bombers came over London from Essex, dropping shrapnel bombs, and one bomb hit a primary school in Upper North Street, killing 18 children and injuring around 40 others.

Poplar and Call the Midwife

Recently, the BBC has brought post-war Poplar back to life in its Call the Midwife TV series. Based on the books by Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife in the 1950s, the series recreates the conditions of much of the East End after the war and highlights some of the social conditions that Poplar had to contend with.

Chrisp Street Market

One of the most popular attractions in Poplar is the Chrisp Street Market. This lively outdoor market has been a fixture of the area since the 1950s and is known for its wide variety of food, clothing, and other goods. It is also a great place to experience the local culture and community spirit, as visitors can interact with the many vendors and residents who come to shop and socialise.

Chrisp Street Market is a historic outdoor market in the Poplar neighbourhood of East London, England. It was established in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition to promote British design and culture. The market was designed by Frederick Gibberd, who was also responsible for the nearby Lansbury Estate, a pioneering example of post-war social housing.

Chrisp Street Market is known for its distinctive modernist architecture, which features a series of interconnected hexagonal stalls and a central clock tower. The design was intended to create a sense of community, encourage social interaction, and provide a functional and aesthetically pleasing space for traders and shoppers.

Chrisp Street Market, Poplar London.
Image by Diamond Geezer
Chrisp Street Market

Today, Chrisp Street Market is a vibrant and diverse market that offers a range of products, including fresh produce, fashion, homewares, and more. It has become an important hub for the local community and hosts various events throughout the year, such as food festivals, live music performances, and art exhibitions.

The market is also close to several other attractions, including the Museum of London Docklands and Canary Wharf, a central business district with shops, restaurants, and offices.

  • Another popular attraction in Poplar is the Museum of London Docklands. This fascinating museum tells the story of the area’s rich maritime history from the Roman Empire to today. Visitors can explore interactive exhibits, learn about the lives of the sailors and dock workers who helped to build the area, and even climb aboard a real ship from the 19th century.
  • Poplar is also home to several beautiful parks and green spaces. One of the most popular is Bartlett Park, which features a large playground, a football pitch, and a picturesque pond. Other notable green spaces include the Island Gardens, which offer stunning views of the River Thames and the iconic Greenwich Observatory, and the Mile End Park, which has a wide range of facilities for sports and recreation.

In conclusion, Poplar is a vibrant and exciting area of East London that is well worth a visit. Whether you are interested in history, culture, or food or want to experience the unique atmosphere of one of London’s most diverse communities, Poplar has something for everyone. So why not take a trip to this fascinating part of the city and discover all it offers?

What are the Pros and Cons of Living in Poplar London?

Living in Poplar London can be a rewarding and exciting experience, but it also comes with drawbacks and challenges. Here are some of the pros and cons of living in this vibrant neighbourhood:

Pros of living in Poplar London:

  • You can enjoy Poplar’s rich and diverse history and culture, which has been a port town, a pirate haven, a site of social protest and a wartime target. You can visit museums, monuments and landmarks that tell the stories of Poplar’s past, such as St Matthias Old Church, Poplar Baths, Balfron Tower and Island Gardens.
  • You can benefit from the excellent transport links that connect Poplar to other parts of London and beyond. You can access tube stations, bus routes, cycle paths and river services that will take you to Canary Wharf, the City, Stratford, Greenwich and other destinations. You can also use the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), which runs through Poplar and offers scenic views of the docks and skyscrapers.
  • You can experience the diverse and multicultural community that lives in Poplar. You can find people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions living together in harmony. You can also enjoy a variety of cuisines, shops, festivals and events that reflect Poplar’s diversity. For example, you can visit Chrisp Street Market, which is one of London’s oldest markets and a major commercial and retail centre in Poplar.
  • You can explore the green spaces and waterways that surround Poplar. You can visit parks, gardens and canals that offer relaxation and recreation. You can also check out Trinity Buoy Wharf, which is home to London’s only lighthouse and a creative hub for artists and musicians.

Cons of living in Poplar London:

  • You may face some deprivation and poverty issues that affect some parts of Poplar. Poplar is still one of the most deprived areas in London, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, crime and health problems affecting its residents. Although there have been some improvements and regeneration projects in recent years, there are still many challenges and issues that need to be addressed.
  • You may deal with some noise, pollution and congestion problems that come with living in a big city. Poplar can be noisy, crowded and polluted at times, especially near the main roads, railways and docks. You may also experience some disruption from construction works or traffic jams as new developments are being built or planned in the area.
  • You may pay a high price for living in Poplar London. The average house price in Poplar is £522960 as of December 2020, which is higher than the London average of £466000. The average rent for a one-bedroom flat in Poplar is £1400 per month, which is also higher than the London average of £1300 per month.
  • You may struggle to find a good school or nursery for your children in Poplar. There are many schools and nurseries in Poplar that offer different curricula, facilities and standards. However, some of them may have lengthy waiting lists or strict admission criteria that make it hard to secure a place.

Poplar In Summary

One of the most striking features of Poplar is its rich architectural heritage. The area is dotted with beautiful Victorian buildings, including the famous St. Matthias Church, built in the 19th century and a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. Other notable facilities include the Poplar Baths, designed by the architect E.C.P. Monson and opened in 1852.

Poplar has also been the site of several significant events throughout its history. During World War II, the Germans heavily bombed the area, destroying many of its buildings. However, the resilience and determination of the local community meant that the place was rebuilt in the post-war years, and it has continued to thrive ever since.

Is Poplar a Nice Place to Live?

Poplar has undergone significant regeneration in recent years, with new housing developments, shops, and restaurants opening up in the area. This has helped to attract new residents and businesses to the site and has breathed new life into its streets and public spaces.

Poplar London is an area that offers both opportunities and challenges for its residents. It has a lot of potential to become one of London’s most attractive and desirable neighbourhoods, but it also faces some serious problems that must be solved.

76 thoughts on “Poplar: A Historical and Cultural Guide to East London”

  1. Was there a Rose Road, Poplar in 1914/15? I’ve found reference to a Fireman who served on a number of ships at that time. As usual the official documents are difficult to read. One appears to give his address as “216 Rose Rd, E London”, another as “516 Rose Rd, Poplar”.
    Or was there a road (a long one presumably) spelt like Rose Rd?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • I was born in the flats opposite st andrews hospital & was delivered by them. it was trainee midwife called Margaret. She didn’t have time to wait for other midwife so asked my dad to assist.
      my mum said dr turner was actually called something else & the tall midwife was a real person.

  2. thanks for reply.found out my dad was born 13 black thorn street in 1916 but i have never seen blackthorn street as i live in n scotland.

    Reply
  3. I have a lot of history of the Pethers family who were born lived and worked in around Poplar and some of whom moved to West Sussex in the 1920’s including my late grandparents, Harry and Win Pethers.

    Reply
  4. My family lived in Lodore Street Poplar. The nuns used to take my grandad out. My dad worked in the sorting post office and my son went into Poplar Hospital. I gave an old photo of my sister and myself taken at St Matthias School.

    Reply
  5. Hello my grandfather and grandmother lived in Scurr Street,Poplar,during the 40s to 60s then after they moved to Limehouse.It’s probably a long shot,but does anyone remember them?

    Reply
  6. My mother’s family lived at 239 Abbott’s road poplar the family name was Abrey
    Annie mable Abrey, brothers John and I would really like to know a little more if anyone has any info please.

    Reply
  7. many of my mums family lived in hackney,old ford,poplar,essex and many more. her name was lily may fey born in 1920s, her mother died 1923 beachy road old ford nobody nos where she is buried,not sure if she was taken to st andrews hospital after that nobody seams to no.

    Reply
  8. my mum was born at beachy road old ford fish island 1920. she worked at clarnicoes mint factory, dont no name of road it was on.

    Reply
  9. Does anyone rember Mrs Audrey parsons she owned a sweet shop in crisps street
    in the 60s also there was a hair dressers along there Doreen’s would love to know number it was
    and if the site is still there also would love any photos

    Reply
  10. My ancestors were from Poplar and my Nan Grace Free was born in Dee Street in 1899. Does anyone have any photos of Dee Street around that time please? I believe the family lived at number 39 and Culloden School was next-door..

    Reply
  11. I have the autograph book of Cissie (Grace) Aitken (neé FIELD). In 1911 she lived at 53 Wansbeck Road, Poplar. Anyone know the family?

    Reply
  12. I recently bought an old classic car, in the history file that came with the car, it’s first owner was Dr JC Verbrugge, in a hand written letter/note from his son in law, it states Dr Verbrugge came to England as a refugee during the first World war, he set up a medical practice in Harley St and one in Poplar. During the General strike (1926?) he was so respected for his work the dockers guarded his car whilst other cars had been attacked and damaged during riots. Dr Verbrugge lived in Blackheath and after the second World War retired to Rissington.

    Reply
  13. My grandfather n all my great uncles all born in Blackthorn street Poplar .They were called Lewis n my grandmothers were called Honney I believe i still have relatives in east end .Any info would help ot photos Thanks

    Reply
    • Not any help at all about finding any relatives for you, just wanted to say my Caston family lived in Blackthorn Street in the 1880s.

      Have you tried the website 192 to trace any relatives? Good luck.

    • My grandmother was from Poplar. Her name was Maud Turner-Spill. She was married with Horatio Spill and had one son Tristram Spill. My father, WWII veteran British Army

  14. My nan was Ellen Alicia DAVIS (Nell) born 1910 & came from Isle of Dogs married Thomas Hoiles (from Gravesend, Kent).My mum Joyce Beatrice Hoiles was born (1930) in Stewart Str. (siblings David, George, Thomas, Johnny & Michael) at some point they all moved to Gravesend.

    My nan had many siblings:- Sisters Maud nee DAVIS who married Sidney Russell (also from Gravesend, Kent), & Mary DAVIS who married Tim Fitzgerald & lived in West Ferry Road, brothers George DAVIS, Tom DAVIS plus others. My Great-nan (Nan’s mother) was known as Lottie nee Lowther. Can’t remember any other street names but they were a well known family on Isle of Dogs.

    Reply
  15. My Mum (Irene) was born in Baisley Street Poplar, her Mum was Louise Horsborough and Dad Matthew Horsborough (secretary to Clement Attlee) involved in politics for some years. I don’t know too much about their lives, parents didn’t say much back then. I would love to know more. Do these names ring any bells?

    Many thanks.

    Reply
  16. My family were the Wells and Savage families from Poplar and Stebendale Street, Isle of Dogs. Does anyone remember them. Thank you.

    Reply
    • The surname Wells had a shop in East India Dock Road in Poplar also a market stall in Crisp Street market may be related.

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