The History of the Isle of Dogs

The following is a guest post.

The Isle of Dogs is a small peninsula in the East End of London, and although small in land mass, it has played an important part in British and American History.

The first use of the term Isle of Dogs is traced back to the 16th century when it was farmland subject to flooding from the River Thames that winds its way around the Island.

Its position was an obstacle to shipping heading into London, therefore at its east side ships were often moored and repaired. It was also a place for embarkation and that was the case with in 1606 when three ships drew anchor and sailed for North America.

Aboard the three ships Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed were a hundred would be settlers hoping to set up a new colony in Virginia. The story of the settlers is well known to most Americans especially the friendship and relationship between John Smith and the young Native American princess Pocahontas. (To mark this historical journey, there is now a Settlers Monument in Blackwall near the aptly titled “Jamestown Way”.)

The rest of the island after this time, developed a reputation as a cold, damp, melancholy place which led to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys to label it the “unlucky Isle of Dogs.” This type of reputation was further enhanced by the hanging and gibbeting of pirates at the southern tip of the island. This was done as a warning to other mariners who may be tempted to stray up and down the Thames.

It was not until the 18th century when the flood defences had been strengthened that windmills were built along the west of the island to take advantage of the strong winds. Even then the island was very sparsely populated, until the 19th century when the West India Docks were built. This totally transformed the island into a industrial centre with the docks and shipbuilding as the main industries.

The island was, even then, scarcely known to Londoners, never mind further afield. However the building of an enormous ship at the southern tip of the island would change that. The well known engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel decided to build a ship over twice as big as what had been built before; it was so big it could not be launched in the normal way but was to be launched by dropping it into Thames sideways. (The story of the Great Eastern was one of bankruptcy, disastrous launch and a ill fated maiden journey but construction of the ship did include many technological advances.)

By the end of the 19th century, the docks were a hive of activity as the British Empire bought goods from many of its dominions. People also began to live on the island in larger numbers – working in the docks, shipbuilding and other industries on the island.

The success of the docks continued into the 20th Century, but the Second World War was to have a catastrophic effect on the island and the islanders. The constant bombing of the Docks by the Germans destroyed much of it; nevertheless, the docks remained open and played a vital part in the war effort.

As result of the war, the whole of the East End was devastated and struggled to recover – overcrowding was rife and living conditions very difficult. (The show Call the Midwife, illustrates some of the struggles residents of the East End faced in the 1950’s, following the war.)

Although the docks continued to function in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, shipping traffic fell as ships unloaded at the bigger docks further along the Thames. Once again the Isle of Dogs was faced with decline, however, the creation of a Dockland agency in the 1980’s sought to find ways to regenerate the area. After a period of decline there grew a new financial district called Canary Wharf which began to rival the City of London.

Since then people have viewed the Docklands as a desirable residence and blocks of apartments are now dotted all over the island. Even now the Isle of Dogs is still relatively unknown even by Londoners but for the visitor there are hidden gems everywhere and is a mere 20 minute ride from the centre of London.

One of the best ways of travelling to the Isle of Dogs is by the Docklands Light Railway, that will take you via Limehouse to Canary Wharf and then on to Greenwich. Or take a Thames Clippers and travel along the Thames to the island.

Remember, the links between Britain and the United States go back centuries and if you visit the First Settlers monument on the Isle of Dogs, you could be following in the footsteps of your ancestors who began that long and hazardous journey over 400 years ago.

Alan Kean is a freelance writer who lives in the Isle of Dogs which is part of the London Docklands area. He is a keen local historian who likes to find the hidden stories of London past and present. Alan blogs at Isle of Dogs Life.


  1. says

    Fascinating history! I’ve heard about the Docklands, but didn’t know that the area was once called the Isle of Dogs.

    Building that ship must have been a test of courage. It must have been the 19th century equivalent of a space shuttle or bullet train.

  2. kate says

    In the photo of the First Settlers’ Monument, what is the ‘domed’ structure in the background? And what are those thing sticking out of it??

  3. Emily Dame says

    I just finished a Deborah Crombie novel, Kissed A Sad Goodbye, set in (on?) Isle of Dogs so this post was timely. Loved the map so I could see where the streets mentioned in the book are located. Thanks!