WORKING TO PRESERVE EAST LONDON'S REMARKABLE HISTORY
About Blackwall and the Lower Lea (or Lee)* Valley
History and Tradition:
Since Roman times there has been access to the river down Blackwall causeway to Blackwall stairs. For many centuries Blackwall stairs was the only access to the river in this area as the rest of the area was marsh. Before the building of the London Bridges a regular ferry operated from Blackwall for north Londoners to cross what was always called "the Surrey side. Even though it was in Kent during this period.
still exists in its old cobbled form (although it has been bisected by the DLR and the Limehouse Link motorway). Many older Londoners remember walking from Blackwall station down Blackwall causeway to Blackwall stairs for a Sunday outing, a picnic or even a swim in the Thames. Blackwall Stairs are legally in the ownership of Tower Hamlets Council but the neglect has currently left them in a very dilapidated state, access to the stairs has been virtually impossible for a number of years because the Council built a waste disposal plant on the river side at Yabsley Street which blocks the way to Blackwall stairs.
Local people would like to see this refuse site moved elsewhere and replaced with something relevent to the history of this area e.g. An historic Archive or Genealogy centre for visitors and local people. We should be commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the first English Settlers who arrived in the New World in 1607, jointly, 'Jamestown2007' is being organised in America with Indian and African descendants taking part.
Meanwhile the Council's current contract was due to expire and we asked them to move Yabsley Street Waste Disposal plant further up the canal to Bow Creek near the old British Gas Works site which once existed opposite Newham, see map This location would easily be reached by the waste disposal tugs who daily pick up waste for the landfill sites. The Charrington site area can be approached via Abbotts Road (B125). In fact, British Gas themselves were offering grants for any good recycling projects, perhaps there is an opportunity for a green group to get funding.
In 1994, a successful appeal to the River Ombudsman by Leading Thames Waterman Lt.Commander Len Crickmar, helped by Ian Sharpe the environmentalist, made the local Council aware of its legal responsibilities towards public rights of way, they were informed in no uncertain terms that stair access must be kept in decent repair, and that they should address their poor maintenance record over many years regarding all 148 'Company of Watermen' stairs across the Borough, of which Blackwall stairs are one of the most important, the Ombudsman made it clear that stairs remain legal Public Rights of Way and must be maintained by the Local Authority at all times for Public or emergency access to the Thames..
This area has very many important connections with America and the New World. In past Centuries, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the local taverns and boarding houses to await the right ship and the right tide that would take them to a new life in America, of course, others, such as convicts, were deported to Australia from here and probably wondered what the future held for them as they sailed away from Blackwall. The many descendants now living abroad would, no doubt, wish to visit here if proper facilities, an historic documentation center, etc. were set up, these important past links and associations of emigrants with this area have been neglected for many years and need to be rekindled.
At Blackwall stairs on a murky December day in 1606, seen off by King James 1st. and funded by The London Virginia Company Captain John Smith, 105 colonists and 55 crew embarked to set sail in three ships, the first being 'Susan Constant' (100tons) led by Captain Christopher Newport, the second ship 'Godspeed' (40tons) under, perhaps the most popular of Captains, Bartholemew Gosnold of Ottley Hall, Suffolk, who, it is said, had been instrumental in helping to set up this voyage.
'The Tempest' written by William Shakespeare, is believed to be based on an earlier voyage made by Gosnold in 1602, the 3rd ship 'The Discovery' (20tons) was under Captain Ratcliffe (alias Sicklemore), but none realised that their success in establishing the first successful English Settlement in the 'New World' would pave the way 13 years later for the epic voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers on the 'Mayflower'.
The voyage had a difficult start when it was becalmed in bitterly cold weather within sight of the Irish coast, almost six further weeks elapsed before the wind picked up again, then a further 9 weeks at sea took its toll on the crew by the time they sighted land on April 27th 1607, many were sick and fatigued. Another week had to be spent reconnoitring further upriver for a strategic spot to avoid the danger of being attacked by maurauding ships, after having named the river after King James, the near bank after Prince Henry and the far bank after Prince Charles. they tied up near a column of trees.
John Smith Restricted
The gruelling voyage had certainly taken its toll on the crew with one death and many aboard suffering from fatigue and sickness, there had been unrest involving Captain John Smith who had been wrongly accused of a misdemeanour, his movements were therefore restricted during the voyage and he was only released on arrival when it was found that the accusation against him was proved to be false.
At the very beginning the local native Indians resisted with showers of arrows, in one incident Captain John Smith was captured by Powhatan Indians, but fortunately the Chief's daughter 'Pocahontas' intervened to save his life, the Captain soon won over the Indians and was released to return to his men, trading soon ensued, with glass beads much sought after by the Indians, mistrust on both sides led to skirmishes, so Captain John Smith hurriedly set to work to build a fort of 'Jamestowne' which he named after the King.
Disney's film about Pocahontas portrays a rather more romantic version of history, but it has proved very popular at the 'box office'. It depicts Captain Smith as a dashing young Man who fell for the attractive Pocahontas. The reality was somewhat different as she was no more than twelve years old when John Smith first met her, he was already 28, but attractive Pocohontas could certainly charm, and did so several years later when she met and married Captain John Rolfe, who became famous for planting Virginia's first tobacco plantations, soon a baby son was born whom they named Thomas.
Pocahontas in England
The whole Family travelled to England in 1616 and settled not far from Blackwall, Pocahontas represented her people with dignity, she conveyed their wish to live in Peace and soon won the respect of many a Nobleman and Woman, she had not been here long, when she, sadly, succumbed to an illness and died while on her way down the river to Gravesend, where she was given a full Christian burial with honour, her remains lie buried there to this very day.
Subsequently many more ships departed from here to the New World including the famous 'Mayflower' 13 years after the first settlers. Many of the original settlers like John Smith, came from Poplar village and included John Dods and John Layden, Smith is buried at St. Sepulchre Church without Newgate where his glass window can be viewed.
The Settlers Monument
There have been a number of monuments to the 'First Settlers' placed on, at least, three different locations in the Blackwall and Brunswick area. The first was on the side of the Railway Tavern which later became the Dockmasters House. It was paid for by American descendants of the first settlers and opened by Nellie and Sue Tyler the daughters of the then Mayor of Virginia on June 30th 1928 in the presence of the American Ambassador and an American cruiser at anchor in the river. This first plaque, unfortunately lasted no more than ten years, and disappeared just before the war.
On 18th May 1951 the Americans came to the rescue once again when the 'Association for the Preservation of Virginian Antiquities' in the presence of the American Ambassador and Archbishop of London opened a free standing monument using granite stones from the Gate of the recently demolished West India Dock and topped by a life sized bronze statue of a mermaid by Welsh sculptor Harold Brown. This monument also lasted no more than a few years.
In 1953, the Brunswick Power Station was built and the monument became inaccessible to the public. In 1971 the Power station decided to move it to a site at the entrance to the East India Export Dock. When, in 1987, the power station was demolished, the monument was moved back to near its 1951 position but by this time the bronze mermaid had disappeared. There have since been a number of reported sightings of her in bric-a-brac markets in East London, but an appeal for information about her whereabouts in the local East London Advertiser has never produced any leads.
The Public Pathway
A public pathway was laid to the site some years ago at public expense but the owners (Broadgate Properties) vacated this site. The replica of the original plaque was removed for safekeeping to the Museum of London in Dockland. All that remained of this memorial to those brave pioneers was the granite base, the whole site became the subject of planning permission for a Barratt's housing development later to be named 'Virginia Quay' located opposite the Millennium Dome exhibition site at Greenwich.
Samuel Pepys Diaries mentions the area a number of times and many seamen including Nelson, Raleigh and
Frobisher have lived or stayed in the area. .The meandering reaches of the Thames has ensured that Blackwall was always been the most convenient landing point for London.
When the Fenchurch Street to Blackwall Cable Railway was built in the 1840's (see photo below) the area became a favorite day trip for Londoners. The construction of Blackwall tunnel in the 1890's brought further visitors to the area, both rich and poor. The Blackwall Cable Railway closed when the company running it went Bankrupt in the 1920's. This last year however the Blackwall station on the DLR Becton Extension has opened almost on the spot of the old original station.
The riverside area had the highest concentration of public houses in London. There were ten by the River, five in Blackwall Causeway, and thirteen in the Blackwall cross area (now occupied by Naval Row and Robin Hood Lane). There were another seven pubs in the Brunswick area, the most famous being the 'Brunswick Tavern' (situated right on the Meridian Line), and the 'Railway Tavern' (approximately on the present site of the Settlers monument).
The Brunswick Hotel and Tavern was built in the style of a gracious colonial mansion . It had large bay windows, curved balconies and a large terrace on the first floor. The meridian was marked by a cut in the stonework on the parapet on each floor. The most favoured rooms were the ones where the beds were placed so that people slept with their head in the Eastern hemisphere and their feet in the Western hemisphere (or vice versa). In the 1840`s the Prince of Wales and other Royal members regularly used the hotel as a popular escape route from the more public exposure of London's West End.
Fun for All
At this time Blackwall and Brunswick had the same association with the Thames as Greenwich does today. On weekends there was a the Bandstand, clowns and entertainers of all sorts. The tradition of Whitebait suppers washed down with locally brewed porter was established in Blackwall long before it was ever taken up by Greenwich. Unfortunately a combination of institutions and events almost completely destroyed the area in the course of less than a century.
The construction of a second tunnel for Blackwall decimated a large amount of property and increasingly came to be used by heavy vehicles rather than the envisaged pedestrians and horse drawn vehicles of the earlier part of this century. It caused considerable environmental damage to the area, even so, people are prepared to consider a third crossing today which would further damage the environment.
The Brunswick Tavern ceased to be the haunt of Royalty and became very run down. It was demolished in 1937 a decade after the closure of the Railway Tavern. Lighterage and shipbuilding were adversely affected by the decline of the docks. The last shipbuilder Blackwall Engineering was closed down to make way for Reuters.
The lower Lea (or Lee) has always been a contiguous part of the Blackwall and Brunswick area and is included in Blackwall ward for political purposes. Like the rest of the area it has a number of interesting points of historical interest. These include the only lighthouse that has never been used, the famous fish island, which, in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries became an industrialised centre with highly polluting industries, it resulted in one of the first pieces of environmental protective legislation, which required the offending industries to locate three miles outside the centre of London. One industry was allowed to remain, however, the 'Pure Lard Company' (now called 'Pura Foods') it still uses the Thames for its supplies of raw oil.
Lea or Lee?
Our Group found an intriguing aspect about the name of the river *LEA or LEE, which we are still researching, since both spellings are correct and seem to depend where you are situated, it is probably the only River in the UK that officially uses two spellings. While in our East area the Lea has always been spelt with 'ea', North of around Enfield it is more frequently spelt with 'ee'. In the ordinance survey (itself originally based at Enfield) both spellings are recognised..
What's to be done?: Despite large amounts of public money made available to the ex 'London Docklands Development Corporation', priority went mainly to the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks, the only thing that Blackwall got is half a walkway (now closed), and Reuters unique building at Leamouth which hardly blends with local architecture along the River, they have extended their local car park and employed a Reuters Security guard to discourage people from using the public footpath, which leads to the 1st. settlers Monument, despite the 'LDDC' having originally agreed a riverside walkway as part of planning permission.
The reinstatement of the Monument to the First Settlers is of significant interest to the United States Government, the Virginian Government and organisations such as the Order of First Families of Virginia, guarantees must be given for its security and maintenance so that the newly restored monument lasts longer than the first two did. The monument could eventually be re-located to currently Council owned land at Blackwall Stairs as part of a programme to reinstate and secure this important part of riverside heritage, adding the establishment of a Memorial and Documentation Center for Emigrants and Immigrants:.
The monument has been moved to at least three different sites in its eighty year existence. However it is unlikely that the settlers would have been able to embark from any of the locations, as they were all marshland in 1606. The most likely embarkation point was Blackwall Stairs itself, which was protected from flooding by the Roman Black Wall.
Blackwall Pier (above) was the main embarkation point for most emigrants (whether voluntary or forced) and was in use right up to the 1930s. The Blackwall stairs have been allowed to rot and are hidden from Public view behind the Council's waste disposal site at Yabsley Street, this location on Blackwall's riverfront would be an ideal location for an historic archive or Genealogy centre, or near the site of the New Zealand Shipping Company who had offices at the Blackwall pier (above) where hundreds of thousands of emigrants were dispatched for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the 'New World'.
The Time is NOW
It is high time that discussions took place with the concerned Governments with a view to providing funds for an appropriate memorial and documentation Centre, and to re-open and re-instate Blackwall Stairs which are currently Council property. This important and valuable access to the river has been closed since the last war. The establishment of a riverside walkway from Blackwall Stairs to Orchard point was around 70 % complete until Reuters shut off their section from the Public and Baratt's Housing developers started construction of 'Virginia Quay'. It now needs to be properly addressed, attention should be drawn to the area via more publicity, etc. pointing out the significance of the Brunswick and Railway Taverns, Blackwall Cable Station etc., etc., etc.
The establishment of a Riverside Park on Brunswick Pier would complement other local parks like 'King Edward VII', 'Island Gardens', 'Greenwich Park' and the new 'Thames Barrier Park' all set at strategic locations along the River. The development of a New Brunswick Hotel and Tavern on the Meridian time line, could help fund the development of the surrounding park.