Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs

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.

14 thoughts on “History of The Isle of Dogs London”

  1. Only have limited info as all grand parents on all sides are now deceased bless .My name is Karen Marcelle Moores.My great grandparents from poplar,Isle of dogs,And,pensilvania,usa names are..Engle,moores,Ward,and Johnson .would love to trace my Great grandparents,and Grandparents in and around the era of 1850,s to1980,s info .I have tried looking for info but to no avail
    .gparents name Florence Mary Engle married into Thomas Moores 1930/1940?? Other Great grandparents called Caroline “Jennie ward married Robert Joseph Ward .siblings Irene Louise Ward/ johnson.and Beatrice” Betty” ward / cooper .would love to hear about any info given to put my mum’s mind at rest thankyou k.moores

    1. Hello Karen,
      Your Grandfather Thomas George Henry Moores birth 1910-1967 married Florence Mary Engle birth 1912-1985 in 1936.
      Thomas’s father was Charles Moores birth 1887-1935 married Nellie Elizabeth Hooks birth 1886-
      Charles Moore’s 1887-1935 father, also name Charles Moores birth 1865-1942 Married Frances Featherstone
      Birth 1869-1941.
      Your Grandmother Florence Mary Engle birth 1912-1985. Her Father William John Engle married in 1903 Florence Olga Russell birth 1882-1964?
      William’s father was Henry Engle birth 1844-1906 married Elizabeth Teape 1845-1907?
      His father was Phillip Engle birth Hesse Germany in 1800 married in London 1938 to Catherine Kolb birth 1807 Hesse Germany.
      Phillip Engle’s father Conrad Engle birth 1780 Hesse Germany. He was in the Prussian Army attached to the British Army and fought as a private at The Battle of Waterloo 1815, 2nd Line Battalion Kings German Legion.
      Awarded The Waterloo Medal 1815.
      Pension Details UK Royal Hospital Chelsea 2nd April 1817.
      Muster Books Details – start 25th March 1815 – Netherlands end of Muster 24th June 1815 – 2nd Line Battalion Kings German Legion.
      He probably settled in London after his links to and pension from the British Army. His occupation on his son’s Phillip and wife Catherine’s Kolb marriage certificate in 1838 is a Tailor he could have trained after he left the army.
      These last details about about Phillip Engle, Catherine Kolb and Phillip’s father Conrad Engle might be wrong to your family but they seem to fit.
      All the other information was obtained from Census records and Family History sites related to you.

  2. My family had a general stores in Poplar around 1880 to 1930 ,it was named Mccartney,I had a photo of it but lost it,could anyone help find it again,it was the only copy.many thanks.

  3. My grandmother, Daisy Gladys Gulliver, née Gilbertson, was born in 1916 in Poplar. She lived her life prior to marriage in the Isle of Dogs, and had fond memories of her childhood.
    Her parents (my great-grandparents), Margaret R Gilbertson, née Stamp, and John F Gilbertson were also in Poplar in 1881 & 1883 respectively.
    Her father was the Lord Mayor of Poplar and Surrounding Areas for a short period. A time that brought her and her family immense pride for his political achievement. My grandmother remembers that her father would often have people sleep in their loungeroom while he tried to help them find accommodation and employment. She recalls that he would have to have his spats boiled and pressed daily.
    Her siblings were: Margaret (Madge), Doris (Gunner), Elizabeth (Betty), Jack & Ron. Their family home was directly across from their school, which I would dearly love to try find one day.
    I am in Australia and my grandmother emigrated to be with us in 1989 and passed away after 21 years in “paradise” as she would say, on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, 2010.
    I wonder if anyone remembers my grandmother Daisy or her family?

    1. I’ve just seen this and wanted to reply as Margaret and John Gilbertson were my great grandparents too!

      My grandfather was George (maybe known as Jack?) so I’m assuming was Daisys’ brother. He married my grandmother in Lancashire but I haven’t found out why he moved north or how they met.

      I live in Scotland – was born in Lancashire and moved here as a very young child and had limited contact with George before he died in 1975/6.

      Hope you don’t mind me getting in touch and I’d be interested in hearing more about the family.

  4. My grandparents the Simmons lived at 11, Acland Street. Grandad Bob was a city of London policeman often on point duty at London Bridge. Mum Doris my aunt Joan & uncle Bob we’re all born there & went to Burdett St school. Mum worked at the Royal Mint. The family were moved to Sudbury Town when Acland st was bombed. My Greatgrandfather worked for the Port of London Authority in the bonded wharehouse.

  5. 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.

  6. 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’

  7. 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. 😛

  8. 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

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.