The Isle of Dogs is a former island in the East End of London that is bounded on three sides (east, south and west) by one of the largest meanders in the River Thames. It is almost bounded to the north by the South Dock (part of the old West India Docks). This dock is separated from an inlet of the River Thames by some forty metres of infilled land. Except for this one small separation, access to the Isle of Dogs always necessitates crossing water by bridge or tunnel.
The Isle of Dogs is situated some distance downriver from the City of London. The area was originally a sparsely populated marshland before its drainage and planting in the 13th century. A catastrophic breach in the riverside embankment occurred in 1488, resulting in the area returning to its original marshy condition. This was not reversed until Dutch engineers re-drained it in the 17th century.
One road led across the Marshes to an ancient ferry, at Ferry Road. There was rich grazing on the marsh, and cattle were killed for market in fields known as the Killing Fields, south of Poplar High Street.
The western side of the island was known as Marsh Wall, the district became known as Millwall with the building of the docks, and from the number of windmills constructed along the top of the flood defence.
The urbanisation of the Isle of Dogs took place in the 19th century following the construction of the West India Docks, which opened in 1802. This heralded the area's most successful period, when it became an important centre for trade. The East India Docks were subsequently opened in 1806, followed by Millwall Dock in 1868. By the 1880s, the casual employment system caused Dock workers to unionise under Ben Tillett and John Burns. This led to a demand for 6d per hour (2.5p), and an end to casual labour in the docks. After a bitter struggle, the London Dock Strike of 1889 was settled with victory for the strikers, and established a national movement for the unionisation of casual workers.
The three dock systems were unified in 1909 when the Port of London Authority took control of the docks. With the docks stretching across from East to West with locks at each end, the Isle of Dogs could now once again almost be described as a genuine island.
Dock workers settled on the "island" as the docks grew in importance, and by 1901, 21,000 people lived there, largely dependent on the river trade on the Isle as well as in Greenwich and Deptford across the river to the south and west. The Isle of Dogs was connected to the rest of London by the London and Blackwall Railway, opened in 1840 and progressively extended thereafter. In 1902, the ferry to Greenwich was replaced by the construction of the Greenwich foot tunnel, and Island Gardens park was laid out in 1895 providing views across the river. The London and Blackwall Railway closed in 1926. Until the building of the Docklands Light Railway in 1987, the only public transport accessing and exiting the Island consisted of buses using its perimeter roads. These were frequently and substantially delayed by the movement of up to four bridges which allowed ships access to the West India Docks and Millwall Docks. The insular nature of the Island caused its separateness from the rest of London, and its unique nature.
During World War II, the docks were a key target for the German Luftwaffe and were heavily bombed. A significant number of local civilians were killed in the bombing and extensive destruction was caused on the ground, with many warehouses being totally destroyed and much of the dock system being put out of action for an extended period. Unexploded bombs from this period continue to be discovered today. Anti-aircraft batteries were based on Mudchute farm; their concrete bases remain today.
After the war, the docks underwent a brief resurgence and were even upgraded in 1967. However, with the advent of containerisation, which the docks could not handle, they became obsolete soon afterwards. The docks closed progressively during the 1970s, with the last – the West India and Millwall docks – closing down in 1980. This left the area in a severely dilapidated state, with large areas being derelict and abandoned.
The Docks brought with them many associated industries, such as flour and sugar processing, and also ship building. On 31 January 1858 the largest ship of that time, the SS Great Eastern designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was launched from the yard of Messrs Scott, Russell & Co, of Millwall. The length was too big for the river so the ship had to be launched sideways. Due to the technical difficulties of the launch this was the last big ship to be built on the Island and the industry fell into a decline. However, parts of the launching slipway and plate works have been preserved in situ and may be seen close to Masthouse Terrace Pier.
London Docklands Development Corporation
The Isle of Dogs' economic problems led to mass unemployment among the former dockyard workers and caused serious social deprivation. The local community highlighted its problems on 3 March 1970 by declaring the Isle of Dogs to be an "independent republic", with its own elected president, community leader Ted Johns. Successive Labour and Conservative governments proposed a number of action plans during the 1970s but it was not until 1981 that the London Docklands Development Corporation was established to redevelop the area. The Isle of Dogs became part of an enterprise zone, which covered 1.95 km² of land and encompassed the West India, Millwall and East India Docks. New housing was built, as was new office space and new transport infrastructure. This included the Docklands Light Railway and later the Jubilee Line extension, which eventually brought access to the London Underground to the area for the first time.
Since its construction in 1987-1991, the area has been dominated by the expanding Canary Wharf development with over 14 million square feet (437,000 m²) of office and retail space having been created; 93,000 now work in Canary Wharf alone.
It has been argued by some that the redevelopment has not benefited the long-term residents as much as it might, with accusations of a "land grab" of riverside sites for private apartment blocks during the period of relaxation of planning conditions under the LDDC. Some tensions remain, as in most areas of central London, between the close-knit island community and professionals who have more recently moved to the area. Today, this revolves around the former's need for family homes, against further development of small high-priced apartments.
The Island achieved notoriety in 1993 when Derek Beackon of the British National Party became a councillor for Millwall ward, in a by election. This was the culmination of years of resentment by local residents of perceived neglect by both Liberal Democrat and Labour Party politicians. Labour regained the ward in the full council election of May 1994, and held all three seats until a further by election in September 2004.