Maritime milestones

London’s rivers and docklands are awash with the triumphs and tribulations of the city itself. Here we discover more about the history of London City Island through its surrounding rivers and waterways

East meets west — London becomes one of the world’s major trading cities

London’s dockyard history dates back to Ancient Roman times, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that it really made an impression on the history books with the advent of new technologies and a growing empire. The West and East India Docks were London’s first commercial wet docks, specially designed to ease riverside congestion and to protect cargo from plunderers with purpose-built warehouses. The West India Docks opened in 1802 at the northern end of the Isle of Dogs, designed by engineer William Jessop. At the time it was one of the world’s most expensive building projects, costing the equivalent of an estimated £82m in today’s money. The East India Docks, which opened in 1806, were masterminded by engineers John Rennie and Ralph Walker, who had a hand in engineering the West India Docks. In 1838, the two companies merged to form the East and West India Docks Company. Ships carrying exotic goods such as tea, spices, sugar, rum, indigo, silk, wine and Persian carpets arrived every day from far and wide, making it one of the world’s busiest docks. Many modern street names in the surrounding area reflect this chapter in Britain’s trading history, such as Clove Crescent, Nutmeg Lane, Coriander Avenue and Rosemary Drive.

Creation of the East India Docks made access to the Leamouth Peninsula by road difficult. In the 1800s, this formerly isolated area was developed with industrial facilities and homes for their workers. First came the Thames Plate Glass Works, located at the northern end of Goodluck Hope, which was later replaced by iron works and wharves. Up until its closure in 2006, London City Island was home to the Pura Foods factory, before a radical new scheme transformed it into the current development and created much-needed access to Canning Town and the Jubilee Line via the eye-catching 80m red metal bridge.

“Canary Wharf’s striking aesthetic of contemporary skyscrapers glistening above the water was a clear inspiration for neighbouring London City Island.”


The name ‘Isle of Dogs’ dates back to the 16th century and was even referenced by Samuel Pepys, but no one is really sure exactly where this canine moniker comes from. There are several theories, including one that suggestes Henry VIII (or another monarch) kenneled his hunting dogs in the area. Or it could be that ‘dogs’ evolved over the years from other possible maritime names such as ‘dyke’, ‘duck’ or dogger (a Dutch fishing boat).

The New York-inspired regeneration of Canary Wharf

London’s docklands were targeted during the Blitz and the West and East India Docks sustained significant damage. Eventually, they were overshadowed by the bigger, more state-of-the-art Royal Docks, and in 1967 the East India Docks became the first in London to close. The Isle of Dogs area would fall into disuse for several years until the 1980s, when it was reimagined as London’s financial hub.

By 1980, all of London’s historic docks had closed. A year later, the government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation to give these formerly prosperous areas a new lease of life. One of the first places on the agenda was Canary Wharf, a development located on the site of the former West India Dock on the Isle of Dogs. Canadian property tycoon Paul Reichmann, who had recently transformed Manhattan’s Battery neighbourhood into the sleek World Financial Centre, was appointed the man for the job. By 1987, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) had opened to connect this formerly isolated area to the rest of London, and in 1991 the iconic One Canada Square opened, completely transforming the city skyline and attracting new businesses like a beacon. At the time, it was the UK’s tallest building, until it was superseded by the Shard in 2012. Canary Wharf’s striking aesthetic of contemporary skyscrapers glistening above the water was a clear inspiration for neighbouring London City Island, which has been nicknamed ‘Mini Manhattan’.


The name Canary Wharf has nothing to do with little yellow birds and actually has more in common with the canine association of the Isle of Dogs. The name comes from Britain’s trading history with the Canary Islands, whose name derives from ‘canis’, the Latin for ‘dogs’.•-LCI_website_July_Maritime5.jpg

The DLR in Docklands

“In the Victorian era, London’s dockyard industries were booming, which led to the need for more space and better technology to alleviate the daily influx of ships.”

Engineering ingenuity and the Royal seal of approval

In the Victorian era, London’s dockyard industries were positively booming. This led to the need for more space and better technology to alleviate the daily influx of ships, so more commercial docks were planned in a marshland area in east London. This was spearheaded by eminent British engineer George Parker Bidder, who designed the Victoria Dock, which opened in 1855. At 13-metres deep and featuring state-of-the-art dockside cranes and even a refrigerated warehouse to store perishable goods, it was a triumphant feat of engineering. Royal Albert Dock followed in 1880 to further accommodate the booming industry and was the first dock in the city to be lit by electricity and be served by a purpose-built railway station. The final dock arrived in 1921 and was officially opened by King George V, who gave the trio their ‘Royal’ titles. These regal docks were a marvel of Victorian ingenuity and encompassed a total of 250 acres.

By the early 1980s, with the government investing in new uses for these historically and culturally significant areas, plans were afoot to create an inner-city airport using the former central wharf as the runway. This came in the form of London City Airport, which opened in 1987. And in 2012, just before the start of the London Olympics, the Emirates Air Line opened at Royal Docks, flying 90 metres above the Thames to North Greenwich.

The River Lea — London’s second river

The River Thames may be known as the lifeblood of London, but the River Lea carries its own rich history. First recorded by name in the 9th century (although believed to be much older), the River Lea — also spelled Lee — originates in Luton in Bedfordshire, flowing some 68km into Greater London where it finally meets the River Thames, making it the second biggest river in the capital. The last looping section is known as Bow Creek, which circulates London City Island for more than 3km. Use of the River Lea for navigation is recorded in documents dating from 1190, making it one of the oldest navigations in Britain.

According to Simon Myers – CEO of the Gasworks Dock Partnership, a charity leading the regeneration and development of Cody Dock – the River Lea was ‘Once considered one of Europe’s most polluted rivers, a legacy from the industrial revolution, and is now a thriving waterway. We even see seals coming past City Island — who would believe it!’

The 20th century saw great improvements to the river, with a major scheme launched in 1922 to enlarge and rebuild locks to enable larger vessels to use the navigation. And in more recent history, Myers notes that the river was the ‘artery’ that kept many Londoners fed.

‘Tottenham and upwards into the Lea Valley was, up until around 60 years ago, absolutely covered in green houses and was where a lot of our fruit and veg came from,’ he adds.•-LCI_website_July_Maritime2.jpg

The first flight into London City Airport in 1982

“Once considered one of Europe’s most polluted rivers, the River Lea is now a thriving waterway. We even see seals coming past City Island!”


Cody Dock and Trinity Buoy Wharf — creative vision and putting community first

For the past decade, Myers has been instrumental in redeveloping Cody Dock. He is extremely knowledgeable of the area, having lived on a houseboat on the River Lea for more than 20 years. During this time the evolution of Newham and its environs has been phenomenal in a way that echoes the knock-on effects of the industrial revolution centuries earlier.

‘Up until 200 years ago, this area didn’t exist. It was all marshland,’ Myers explains. ‘And it has only existed as a London borough for just over 60 years. City Island and the river was the boundary to London. It was very cheap land that wasn’t under the control of the guilds in London, so when the Industrial Revolution kicked off it was the perfect place to set up shop’.

From around 1820, Newham saw a population explosion, growing from around 4,000 people living an ‘agricultural existence’ to around a quarter of a million in just 50 years. With modern regeneration — especially in the years following the redevelopment of Stratford — Myers noticed that the Lea connected everything, but the surrounding land was somewhat ‘disjointed and cut off; divided by highways, railway tracks and power lines’.

In 2008, Myers (who has a background in arts) cited Cody Dock as one of three ‘pivotal blockages’ that prevented a walk along the Lea up to Stratford. With its thriving wildlife that had quietly flourished following years of disuse, he also identified Cody Dock as a location that had been ‘off the radar’, which local residents could help to redevelop.

Since officially opening in November 2011, volunteers have been instrumental in transforming Cody Dock; clearing the area of waste, documenting local wildlife, replanting vegetation and creating a public footpath.

‘We came up with the idea of using the heritage and ecology of the area as a vehicle to create a greater sense of place,’ says Myers. ‘Volunteering gives people a sense of ownership.’•-LCI_website_July_Maritime6-768x1007.jpg•-LCI_website_July_Maritime3-768x1007.jpg

Established in 1871, Cody Dock was originally purpose-built for unloading coal from barges and was later owned by the Gaslight and Coke Company. It was founded by Harper Twelvetrees, a pioneering industrialist, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. Myers points out this part of London has a surprisingly rich history of social reform. Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was the MP for West Ham and was an advocate for women’s rights, and Sylvia Pankhurst founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes in nearby Bow. Named in her honour, Sylvia Pankhurst Street is located just minutes from London City Island.

‘This area is a treasure trove of really interesting stories and resources that have kind of been forgotten,’ says Myers.

As well as developing the area and building a rolling bridge and heritage pavilion to showcase its rich history later this year, Cody Dock will also soon be home to artist studios for local creatives. This echoes London City Island, which features several contemporary galleries and artist studios in a similar format to neighbouring Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Located at the very edge of the River Lea just before it flows into the Thames, Trinity Buoy Wharf was, in its heyday, used to test buoys, lighthouses and lightships. Today, it is home to London’s only remaining ‘experimental lighthouse’ (built in 1864) and was where pioneering scientist Michael Faraday conducted his optical experiments. A decade after being purchased by London Docklands Development Corporation in 1988, Trinity Buoy Wharf reopened as an artistic hub with studio spaces, workshops, cafes and restaurants, classrooms and various event spaces.


Words: Gemma Billington

Images: Alamy, Getty, Museum of London


As well as its two different spellings, the River Lea has also been recorded over time as ‘Ligan’, ‘Ligean’, ‘Lygan’, ‘Luye’ and ‘Leye’. All of these are believed to come from the Celtic word ‘Lugh’, an ancient god in Irish mythology whose name means ‘bright’ or ‘light’. This means that the River Lea may roughly translate to ‘bright river’, or ‘river dedicated to the god Lugus’.•-LCI_website_July_Maritime4.jpg