History of The Isle of Dogs London

Once a rural and relatively wild area of marshland that was mainly used for animal pasture, the Isle of Dogs is now the financial hub of London. Home to the impressive skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, this area has seen some massive changes and events over the centuries and is well worth a visit if you want to see how old and new London can live side by side.

The original name for the island was Stepney Marsh or Stebunheath. It is thought that the Isle of Dogs name originated in the 16th century. Nobody really knows where this name came from, but there are plenty of theories. Some say that the name was given to the area because of the number of dead dogs that washed up on its banks. Others think that the modern name is a variation of other names given to the area, such as the Isle of Dykes or the Isle of Ducks.

The early days of the Isle of Dogs

Until industrialisation started to spread outside of the City of London, the island was a quiet place. Most of this area was marshland that was relatively uninhabitable until the land was drained and reclaimed in the 13th century. Even then, it did not have many inhabitants and most people who lived there were farmers or fishermen. In the 1600s, life started to change on the island. Windmills were erected on its west side to grind corn and millers joined the local community. This area of the island became known as Millwall because of these mills.

Industrialisation and the Isle of Dogs

London started to expand during the next couple of centuries. The East End’s proximity to the Thames saw a big boom in shipbuilding and maritime industries in the area.  Seeing a need to expand dock areas, a group of sea merchants asked to build docks on the north of the island. By 1802, the West India Docks opened. These were followed by the East India Docks, bringing with them shipyards, iron works and a lot of related businesses.

The island’s population also increased significantly, as workers moved into the area to work for local businesses. This led to the need for more housing and developments such as William Cubitt’s Cubitt Town. It is thought that the local population grew to over 14,000 by the mid 1800s and to over 20,000 by the start of the 20th century. In the early part of the 19th century, the Isle of Dogs had been home to just a few hundred people.

By the middle part of the 19th century, the island shifted away from shipbuilding and focused more on engineering, food processing and chemical businesses. The need to manage grain and timber imports led to the opening of new docks at Millwall in 1868. Some of the country’s best-known businesses set up sites here, including McDougall’s and Duckham’s. There was plenty of work to go round and the island was booming.

The Isle of Dogs and the Second World War

The docks on the Isle of Dogs made the area a prime target for German bombing raids during the Second World War, and the island and its residents had a fairly torrid time, especially during the Blitz. The island was home to some anti-aircraft guns that helped defend London against attack. You can still see some of these units on the Mudchute Park and Farm site on the island. One of the units has been restored and is a useful source of information on the impact of the war on the local people and area.

Modern History; The Isle of Dogs after the war

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs

After the war, a lot of council housing went up all over the island to replace properties that had been destroyed or were badly bomb damaged. Industry on the island continued to thrive up until the 1970s. At this point, a lot of the traditional businesses in the area moved away and, in the 1980s, the West India and Millwall docks closed down. The island, like much of the East End at that time, suffered from high unemployment and became relatively deprived. The island also reverted back to being a quiet and sleepy place once again.

This was to change, however. The area went through a major redevelopment program under the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation starting in the early 1980s. The corporation created the financial centre at Canary Wharf that now dominates the area. Regeneration programs also improved local transport links. Parts of the Isle of Dogs retain their original charm, however, and this area is not just about high-end housing developments and high-finance skyscrapers. If you are in the area, try a visit to Mudchute Park and Farm for some time out from the hustle and bustle of Canary Wharf.

7 comments on “History of The Isle of Dogs London
  1. sue willis says:

    Hi as the children of an Islander my brother & I are regular readers of Isle of Dogs Lives & we were especially pleased to see an article on Alpha Grove. Does anyone remember the Bircham family firstly of Mellish Street & then no 67 Alpha Grove? They were George & Ruth, our grandparents & their two daughters, Ruth (our mum) born in 1918 & her sister Regina Maud (Jean) born in 1922. Nan & grandpop managed a general store, Carters, on the Westferry Road which was popular with the workers from Mortons in their lunch breaks. Mum & our dad, Ernest William Willis also known as Bill & who was from Lewisham, were married at St Lukes on 31 August 1940. Our family remained on the Island throughout the Blitz & then moved to Biggin Hill in I think 1941. We have always been interested in the history of the Island & the east end that our parents would have known & would like to hear from anyone who would like to share.

  2. I served my apprenticeship in the mid 1950’s at the London Graving Dock Company which was situated at the Southern end of the West India Dock adjacent to Blackwall Basin and Junction Dock. During my apprenticeship I worked on ships throughout the dock system. The West India Dock had four quays, i.e North quay, Canary Warf, Monkey Island and the South Quay.
    For a look at life and some of the wonderful characters on the Isle of Dogs and surrounding area in the 1950’s check out my book ‘Dockland Apprentice’

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this. My Great-Grandmother was born here and it didn’t make sense because I thought it was dockyards. I didn’t realize people actually lived in the area. 😛

  4. amanda epstein says:

    Canary Wharf itself takes its name from No. 32 berth of the West Wood Quay of the Import Dock. This was built in 1936 for Fruit Lines Ltd, a subsidiary of Fred Olsen Lines for the Mediterranean and Canary Islands fruit trade. At their request, the quay and warehouse were given the name Canary Wharf.

    hope this answers your question

  5. Roberto says:

    Im sorry but that reflexion its not true! I am from the Canary Island. The Canary islands name came from the north of africa, of the Amazig tribes, more than 5000 years ago. Arrived to the Canary islands from the north Africa .These people in the old ages, the Romans, Greek, knew than Canarii(Proto-Amazigh tribes), it was his original name! and but nothing about dogs! Canary not mean “dogs.” Only it was a mention the “Plinio the old,” he was a very famous Roman geography. Today we are the descendents of those peoples, not the spaniards.

    • Susan Clark says:

      Hi Roberto, I lived on the isle of dogs. There were many docks on the island receiving good from all over the world. One of the many wharf’s in the docks received goods from the Canary Islands only. That is why it was named canary wharf. Today there is a high towered office building on the site of the old wharf which has taken over the name. I hope this clears up any confusion you may have had.

  6. Jim Tinkinswood says:

    Who was the clever person who came up with the name “Canary Wharf”?
    I assume it was deliberate, but must go ‘straight over the heads’ of some people.
    Canaries (the birds) are associated with the Spanish “Canary Islands”, but the islands are not named for the birds, rather, as “Islas Canarias” they are also “The isles of dogs”.
    With this pun (Canary Wharf) the name has come full-circle.

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