What’s in a name?…Isle of Dogs

January 24, 2011

Located in a great bend of the River Thames to the east of the City, the Isle of Dogs isn’t really an isle at all but a broad peninsula of land jutting out to the south of Poplar, opposite Greenwich.

Formerly known as Stepney Marsh, for centuries the area was protected by a great embankment and in the 13th and 14th centuries came to be home to a small agricultural community. After the embankment was breached, however, the area reverted to marshland and only came back into more intensive use with the opening of the West India and East India docks in the early 1800s (amalgamated in 1838) and Millwall Dock in the 1860s. The linking of these docks in the early 1900s apparently made the “isle” an island for the first time.

At the same time, the area also became noted for shipbuilding – among the vessels constructed here was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever built when launched in the late 1850s.

The population of the area rose thanks to the docks and by 1901 – following the development of Cubitt  Town, named for developer William Cubitt – the population had risen to 21,000. Heavily bombed in World War II, the isle saw a resurgence in the Fifties and Sixties but gradually declined in the following years as new shipping technologies made the docks obsolete. The last of the docks closed in 1980.

The area has since been redeveloped in a project initially driven by the London Docklands Development Corporation and is now in effect a city within a city, housing homes, apartments, retail precincts and office buildings – including One Canada Square, the highest tower in London, at Canary Wharf (the highest tower in London until recently surpassed by the currently-under-construction Shard in Southwark), linked to the rest of the city via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

But what about the name Isle of Dogs? One theory is that it was here King Henry VIII kept his hunting dogs (the earliest reference to the Isle of Dogs is apparently on a map dated 1588) while others suggest the name comes from dogs King Edward III kept there. Others have suggested the name is a corruption of ‘Isle of Ducks’, that the area is named for packs of dogs who roamed wild in the marshlands here or that it comes from the fact dead dogs washed up on banks of the Thames here. As for which is the truth? Take your pick.

Tower Hamlets, the local authority, offers a great free walk through the area which gives you a glimpse into its history. See http://bit.ly/dRzcP9.

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