Charles Booth’s Survey of the Streets of London is famous. His notebooks cover most streets and he defined the areas he saw by the amount of poverty he judged there – often also informed about areas by local police who sometimes accompanied him. He translated this into maps which show, in colour, prosperous and poverty stricken areas.
So – what did he make of the Greenwich Peninsula. He was of course looking mainly at housing – and he investigated what is now a forgotten community living along Blackwall Lane and on side roads. Booth sent an assistant, George Arkell, to investigate on Thursday 12th October 1899 accompanied by Detective Sergeant Hardy.
Walking round the area they had already been to what was then called Christchurch Street – and noted “A few two storey houses on west side belonging to a barge builder who has a yard there”. These cottages are those still standing just at the northern end of the street. They were designated to be coloured ‘Pink – fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’. He also noted “At the north end of this street is the entrance to the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company’s works.” – now, of course, Alcatel-Lucent.
They walked down Blackwall Lane covering the side streets – Commerell Street, Conley Street and Davern Street – when they reached Azof Street. Here they could not help but to notice “Rothbury Hall, a very pretty Congregational Mission Church, red brick with pinnacles”. Azof Street was then new and the ‘roadway and foot walks are not made up and the centre is a sea of mud, six to seven inches deep. What it is like in wet weather is difficult to imagine”.
They next looked at Mauritius Road. “This road is not made up but is in rather better condition than Azof Street. A footway has been made on the north side”. He noted that here were housed “Men working at Maudsley’s, and the telegraph works. These were noted as “PURPLE with a strong tendency to LIGHT BLUE’ – – this classification is “mixed” tending to “poor”
The walk continued northwards down Blackwall. Lane – on a stretch now designated at Tunnel Avenue. Throughout the history of the last century or so on the Peninsula it is a real challenge to remember which bit or road is called ‘Blackwall Lane’ and which ‘Tunnel Avenue’ and when. Booth’s researcher, George Arkell, and PC Hardy knew this stretch as Blackwall Lane – but we don’t!
“ Market gardens on both sides, while on the west by the river are seen the shafts of the factories on the bank” They walk as far as Morden Wharf Road – a small turning most people will not now notice. It ran from Blackwall Lane to the riverside but at some stage was taken by the glucose refinery – (Tunnel Glucose, Amylum, Syrol) and became an internal road. It is still there though. He notes that it is “now called Sea Witch Lane” – whatever, it is now marked as Morden Wharf Road.
Before reaching Morden Wharf Road Arkell had noted “a group of 50 houses belonging to the London County Council’ Idenden Cottages. These houses “built on three sides of an open space” must have stood more or less on the site of the dark red brick block which was Amylum’s offices – and in fact a road way goes up either side of that building reminiscent of the crescent around the cottages. Arkell noted “Look comfortable. Men employed at wood-paving works” This works, which made tarred road blocks was further down Blackwall Lane.
Before reaching Morden Wharf Road was also “ Warwick Place – tenement cottages with little gardens in front”. This must be the area now covered with the red drainpipe art work erected by Cathedral Group developers. Arkell noted then “Poor” and guess the inhabitants as “probably cement workers” – clearly a more down market group than wood paving workers.
On the northern side of the entrance to the Lane was Sidmouth Place.” Nine houses. Gardens in front better” and clearly socially “better than Warwick Place”. Now if you look at the roadside there just past the red drain pipe things you will see that the pavement widens with the hoardings behind it in a curve, There is a line of bollards in front of about half of it and some reasonably nice pavement. Is this the remains of Sidmouth Place and its front gardens.
Arkell and Hardy set off down Morden Wharf Road “through clouds of dust which obscure the view ahead and the most unpleasant fumes, turning sharply to left and passing under a network of pipes, one is thankful to reach the river bank and breathe the fresh air once more. Once at the river they were at the Sea Witch Pub “with an erstwhile garden in front, booth and benches down to the river. The garden, however, has been disused for some time and the whole place is covered with dirt and cement dust. The Sea Witch was sadly lost in wartime bombing – and replace by what was the lab block for the glucose refinery, which looked eerily like the pictures of the old pub. That too is now gone, thanks to Syrol’s French demolition crews.
The researchers noted here a “house occupied by a foreman with a river view and a Servant cleaning windows” They marked that RED – “well to do” and returned back to what they knew as Blackwall Lane.
They note “Maudsley’s Yard” this was on what we know as Bay Wharf and would have been roughly where the footpath emerges from the riverside path onto the Tunnel Approach. Thus a long stretch of road is not noted which covers the Brentag Works and the site of the bridge over the motorway with its spiral ramp. This obviously means there was no housing and thus not of interest. At Maudslays they noted two houses here “known as Maudslay Cottages and occupied by foremen”.
They then noted “the works of the Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum Company” – this was the first works on the left as the slip leaves the Blackwall Tunnel Approach to run up and round to the Dome – and also where lorries dragged off the entrance to the Tunnel go to meet the police. He says “Large houses here occupied by the manager” and, obviously, no sign of those now but they are marked RED. “well to do”
The continued “along the path which runs along the top of the river embankment until the Asbestos Works are reached ……open fields are reached” They then crossed back eastward to the main road. “On the east side is an open square with buildings on three sides”. This was Blakeley Cottages built in 1866 for the short lived gun foundry – the Blakeley Ordnance Works There were seventeen houses, which by the 1890s “belong to Gas the Company and occupied by their work people. One family in each. Comfortable” They note also “the Livesey Mission Hall – where a LCM works”
Then “on the south side is Blakeley Buildings. 4-st tenement block with gallery in front to each floor. This tenement block was also built by the Blakeley Ordnance Co but never finished and standing empty for many years. Until recently the site was occupied by two houses which appeared to have been built in the 1950s but which were called ‘Blakeley Cottages’. As the Dome grew in the late 1990s the morphed into a ‘Motel’ and café. They have since been demolished. Arkell found the Blakely tenement block “Much poorer than the cottages belonging to the Gas Company”
They returned to, Blackwall Lane noting on the gas works site “two houses on the … occupied by foremen.
They returned to what they called “Ordnance Road” – which I assume is now Ordnance Crescent which now runs round from the end of ex Blackwall Lane/now Tunnel Avenue to the Dome and then used to run round back down to join the motorway, but which is now more or less inaccessible to ordinary people. Back to 1899 when he noted that the “Ordnance Arms, has gone “ apparently scarified to the Tunnel builders. There were houses here then “On the east side is Alpha Place cottages. Mostly labourers and wood. yard worker. One house has broken windows mended with paper” and ….”poor. Labouring men” and they are marked a damming DARK BLUE, PURPLE.
They turn west into “ Teddington Place” – – now the area where the barrier stands alongside the southbound A102M along with a sign telling you that you will be fined for running out of petrol There stood two storey houses ‘with separate entrance for each’ however they too were Poor. DARK BLUE, PURPIE,
So back they went into what they see as the “main road .. at the Tunnel entrance” where they see “a large pub with a small house adjoining it” . This, I think, must mean the Star in the East, which still stands in the form of Ranburns Electrical shop (I once went in and asked if I could take a photo ‘because it is an old pub’ ‘no’ said the man – until I pointed out to him the Whitbread’s sign on the wall – ‘never noticed that’ he said)
They continued walking northwards on the west side of the Tunnel reaching “ Wood Paving Cottages …. with wash-house and other conveniences in front. Men work in the wood works. Most would earn about 30/- a week but homes do not look up to this standard”. and they are marked a dreadful PURPLE. They note the south entrance to the Tunnel – “engineer lives in rooms in the archway” – what goes on up there now?
They reach Wheatman Street. (which I cannot see on any map ) where there were fifteen houses and a road not made up. Again it is designated PURPLE.
Next Sigismund Street (no sign of that either) again houses with the roadway not made up. They were accosted here by a woman, who identifying them as Authority. “asks when we are going to give them a pathway”
They continued up Blackwall Lane here there was a large coffee tavern on the corner of Boord Street. We are now somewhere identifiable, and Boord Street, alongside the spiral stair to the motorway bridge is where the 108 bus off to the Tunnel. In 1899 it was !”occupied by poor working people” and there were 3 shops and a pub – the pub of course is still there, called the Mitre in 1899 it has recently had so many name changes that it is hardly worth listing them, if I could remember them.
Greenfell Street is next which ran to the gate into East Greenwich gas works – then the South Metropolitan Gas Company Works. In the street itself were Six houses on south side… All windows have long curtains and look comfortable. The street is overshadowed by a huge gasometer”. When I moved to Greenwich in the 1960s the houses in Boord and Greenfell Streets were still there, derelict and awaiting demolition. then the Marsh and its industries were seen by the Greater London Council as an unsuitable place for people to live.
We then come to what Arkell describes as “St Andrew’s iron church” . St Andrews was on the site of the building firm’s offices and by the time it was demolished in the 1880s was not an iron church but a rather nice stone building with a pretty iron belfry – soon stolen, I’m afraid. Arkell does not mention the Dreadnought school, describing the church as “the only building on the south side”. Dreadnought has of course been for many years now the store for the Horniman Museum. He notes another fifteen houses – all poor.
They then went off up Marsh Lane now Blackwall Lane and end up near the Pilot. Until the road builders for the Dome got busy you could go up Blackwall Lane and the Pilot was off it on a turning called Riverway which ran to the River. So their walk makes sense – you could do straight there. He remarks on Ceylon Place – which was a tenement block by the Pilot – and he notes it was dated 180I. he notes “nine back-to-back cottages Ceylon Cottages” and “east the twenty four houses called River Terrace”. All of these apart from the pub and the remaining cottages were demolished before 1970. It was however a small and self-contained community. He notes also “ At the river end of Marsh Lane is a large house formerly occupied by Mr Hibb, now a caretaker is there”. This was East Lodge – a big house built in conjunction with the pub and cottages. I am almost at a loss to describe where it was in relation to what is there now. Imagine you could walk from the Pilot to the river – it would be on the riverside to your right and, I guess, under one of the tower blocks.
He further notes “ On the north side of the Lane facing the houses are the Electric Light Company works” – the replacement power station here was demolished on the 1990s and “ The Lane terminates in a landing stage at Bugsby’s Hole” – the landing stage. and causeway into the river, along with the lane – were demolished by the New Millennium Experience Company before 2000 along with the historic access to the river from the Pilot.
Arkell and Hardy turned Back along Marsh Lane. They noted “It is just one o’clock and we meet a succession of children – some 40 or 50 – taking dinners to the gas works and other places. Some carry two dinners.”
They left Ceylon Place from where “the Lane crosses open fields, some planted with rhubarb and crossed at intervals with ditches about….. Near Blackwall Lane is a large horse slaughterer’s place with a dwelling house occupied by the foreman” . That was where the new flats are going up on the old car wash site. And ‘Near this is a fireworks factory, with its little huts studded about the field.” that was where the motorway is at the back of Tunnel Avenue – and “Away in the fields is a piggery with a tumble-down cottage, the last of the dwellings on the Marsh”.
An interesting walk and a look at a lot of poverty. All swept away. And now homes are being built here again.