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
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.