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History of Poplar East London

Poplar in London is perhaps best known at the moment as the setting for the popular Call the Midwife books and TV series. But, this area of the East End has a lot more history to it 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 the one of the most famous pirates of the 17th century.

The early history of Poplar

Like much of the East End of London, Poplar started out 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.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Poplar

Poplar East London Pub
Poplar East London Pub

As London grew over the years, 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 different sea-related industries, including warehousing, ship building 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 originally born in Stepney but moved to the area with his wife after they got married. Originally a commander serving on a ship for the East India company, Mucknell became known as the “King’s Pirate”, as 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 major rebellion, this was a protest against property taxes. It was led by George Lansbury 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 itself had to manage issues like unemployment and poverty with no support or funding from central government. The only way that local councils could do this was to raise money from 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 just could not afford to pay. Richer boroughs could charge lower rates to raise the same sums of cash, even though they had little need of the money compared to areas like Poplar.

The rebellion started because people thought that all rates should be charged equally and that poor areas such as Poplar should not be penalised for having poverty problems. It included a protest procession of 2,000 locals and eventually other boroughs said that 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 badly in the Blitz during the Second World War and was badly damaged by a number of 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. One bomb hit a primary school in Upper North Street, killing 18 children and badly 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 actually worked as a midwife here 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 the people of Poplar had to contend with.

Buy Poplar Old Maps & Photos

24 thoughts on “History of Poplar East London”

  1. Would love to find out more. My Nan was from Isle of dogs. MABEL THORN. I think the family had a butcher’s shop?

  2. Hi there can any one help me please ,what it is what ship sailed in to poplar or surrounding area from abroad about 1937 my nan rose Emmins came from surrounding area, poplar Walthamstow Chingford Stepney met a man had my father and looking for any information to do with a grandad who the family never knew family that I am related to are Emmins Nunn ,my nan was one of thirteen children names a few William [ Bill ] Emmins brother Charlie brother . sister babs not sure if this one was a sister or cousin Nellie lived Stepney, so who ever can help me kind regards karen jessett nee Emmins Family years ago had fruit and veg stall.

  3. Trying to find Cawdor Street. I think my Great-Grandfather’s family lived there about 1860 – 1910. His name was Frederick Pearson father of Leslie. Would appreciate any help.

    1. I had relatives living Cawdor St also, think late 1880s, maybe Simpson, shipping folk. I visited Poplar area 2003, but much gone and motorway there now. Had fun visiting old pub from New Zealand, but old fellows there could not help. Craigie was my maiden name, Auchterarder and Saline, now NZ, any help appreciated,thanks, Muriel

  4. Unfortunately I don’t have any info regarding comments. Interesting site. My great aunt’s family ran a baker shop from Upper North Street, Poplar.
    The 1901 the census shows that they had 2 servants and the male children helped with deliveries. The family name is Mager. I believe he was interned in 1915. Does anyone know anything of them or the shop?

    1. Ingrid

      I am currently researching Poplar as I’m looking for information about the Old Poplar Police Station and came across this website – by looking up your surname on the 1911 UK Census I found the following :-
      Living at 69 Upper North Street Poplar
      George Henry Mager 47 born Germany
      Lydia Mager 41 born Hackney London
      George Alfred Mager 17 born Holloway London
      Conrad Mager 15 born Holloway London
      Alfred Henry Andreas Mager 14 Born Plaistow London Junior clerk
      William George Mager 12 born Poplar London Assistant in a Chemist
      Margaret Winifred maker 10 born Poplar London at School
      Percival John Mager 8 born Poplar London at School
      Evelyn Lucy Mager newborn 10 weeks old born Poplar London
      They were married 18yrs had 9 children only 7 living 2 died family all running the Bakery except for the younger children

      Hopefully this will help you start tracing your family tree

  5. My great grandfather, Harry Floyd, emigrated from Poplar to Canada in 1904 and settled in southern Saskatchewan near the village of Harptree. My grandfather, William, was two years old at the time. I’m wondering if I might still have family in the area, or anywhere in the UK for that matter.

  6. My mother Eileen Gabrielson was born in Poplar in 1932 and was evacuated to stoke on Trent. My great grandfather worked as a barge builder and mt grandad was in the merchant navy. Would love to tour around the area one day, to walk in their footsteps just once

    1. My Grandad and family drank in the ‘Abbey’ the Aberfeldy Tavern for many years – some might say he had shares in it lol…. I remember being taken to the pub and occasionally the chip shop you mention as a child…. although more often we would go to ‘Wally reardons (I think it was) shell fish stall….. Happy days,

      1. Hello Michelle and Kevin – I set up The Tommy Flowers Pub at 50 Aberfeldy Street last year, in a former florists and before that a GP surgery. We’re very interested in any old photographs of the area and have already digitised a great set given by Tommy Shotter’s family of the festivals/parades he organised in the 1970s. Here’s some more info about the pub – Tommy Flowers and there’s a podcast with WRNS who worked with TF in 1944 at Bletchley Park here Podcast Please note our current opening times are 5pm-11pm Thurs-Sat as a pub and 10am-2pm Mon-Wed as a cafe. Best wishes – Garry

    2. Michelle, my Great Grandfather also ran a fish and chip shop at the same address. His name was John Arthur Miller. He was there until around 1917(ish). I have a photo of him outside with a horse he used to make deliveries. I have him there on the 1911 census, and still there in 1917 on some military call up appeals.

  7. Does anyone know of a company called ‘Grindleys’ ? or similar, was based in Poplar in the 1940’s (I believe) and was eventually pulled down.
    I’m writing a tribute for a gentleman who worked there, he was 99 years old. The family are not sure of the spelling of the company, but this chap worked there for over 16 yrs.
    Would appreciate your help in this matter. Many thanks.

    1. Grindley and Co
      of 21 to 23 Broomfield Street, Poplar, London, E

      1868 Company established.

      1914 Tar and rosin distillers. Specialities: insulating and transformer oils, black varnishes, soluble drier preparations, motor and other greases.

  8. Kathryn Langmead

    I only know poplar as such as my dad used to work in s garage there called Poplar Motors? It was in the 60s and he used to tell us the Ronnie and Reggie Kray were regular customers. I can’t find any info on this place. Can anyone help? 😊

  9. My nan Ethel was from Canningtown, she married Cornelius Cocklin and their children, my mum Pauline Cocklin and her sister Constance Cocklin. were born in Poplar. They moved out to Dagenham Essex and lived above a grocers shop. I was born in Romford Essex in 1956 after Mum and Auntie Connie were resettled in Romford Essex.

  10. my nan and gramp grew up in poplar, isle of dogs nan lived at 370 manchester road her maiden name was Hook, her DAD was joseph albert Hook/my gramp was james “jim” Martin he lived at 5 lammda? he was a lamplighter back then in poplar
    they were married in 1935 the blitz demolished their home and they were moved to oxford,
    i would love to know more about poplar and any family in london that might still be there.

  11. Muriel Dick, nee Craigie

    My Craigie relatives lived here around late 1800s being shipping folk moving to Manila trading in tobacco and cigars. Doing genealogy research I would be pleased for any information about 30 Oriental St and 30 Cawdor St, Poplar…..thanks

  12. Monte G Ranshaw

    I was only looking at the site because I was told my great great grandfather was a night watchman in poplar England, and fell into a canal and drowned in January of 1851. His name was John Ranshaw. His children scattered shortly thereafter, one son to America, one son to the 43rd Light Infantry, and a daughter married.

  13. My great-grandfather moved from Bavaria to Poplar as a carpenter and then to the US after the boom in the 1840-60. I’m not sure of the dates. My Grandfather Frank Poplar was born in Chicago in 1870. The buildings built on street Poplar Ave in Chicago were built by my relatives.

    1. I just recently became interested of Poplar because of the television show Call the Midwife and an upcoming visit to London. What a small world to hear about Poplar Street in Chicago. I live in Chicago and was excited to hear about the connection to the street and the town in England. Thank you for sharing this info.

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