Bow Creek

When I arrived in Poplar in 1984 I set about scanning a reasonably detailed map of the parish to see where its boundaries ran and what was contained within them. I was intrigued by the locality on the far eastern edge of the parish of All Saints Poplar. This isolated hamlet was situated on the banks of the River Lea as it approached its confluence with the River Thames. It was cut off from the rest of Poplar in 1804 by the building of the East India Docks, on part of Poplar Marsh. The only access was by a long walk from the East India Dock Road down Leamouth Road which was lined by the tall brick walls of the warehouses which lined either side of Orchard Street (later renamed Leamouth Road). No member of the then present staff of All Saints had visited the area; although one of the curates had a vague memory of a priest having made a Baptism visit in the distant past but there was no evidence to confirm this.

Although the area was cleared by a "slum clearance order" in 1935, I was intrigued by a hamlet that on more than one occasion had been called Poplar's lost village. So I made my exploration driving slowly along the twisty road through the waste land of what had been described at various times as "Poplar's romantic village or as an isolated colony of fisher-folk", I have a strong feeling that day by day the Creek was ignored or perhaps most of the time the people of Poplar were unaware of it. My visit to Bow Creek that day ended on the quayside of the "Trinity House Repair and Stores House". It was a quiet sunny afternoon and a delightful spot to sit and watch the river scene.

As I drove along Leamouth Road that afternoon I was quickly aware of the fact that the river level was only about a foot below the road. Floods were a not infrequent happening. In the early twenties the authorities made it compulsory for house holders to raise the level of the road outside their premises. The Flood of 1928 caused great suffering and ruined the bulk of the contents of most houses. Relief was received from public funds which helped compensate the residents most badly hit. There is no doubt that the environment was damp, dirty and vermin infested.

I was at one time confused by the fact that what was known as Bow Creek was referred to as Orchard House, or Orchard Place, the name, of an Inn no longer in existence. This establishment had stood at the beginning of what was is now Leamouth Road.

An unknown source has written that the ".....the Orchard House district of Bow Creek an area inhabited by a piratical and predatory population and described as a sort of Alsatia for heredity dock thieves". How much of such a description is owed to literary licence is difficult to tell. The writer refers only to the Orchard House district of Bow Creek. However many writers and journalists have over the years used such language about the community in Bow Creek and often applying it unfairly to the whole of the population of this isolated, tight knit and much inter-married population. The locals had very little interaction with the world outside its boundaries. Some families had been established on the peninsular for several generations. One journalist writes of the residents of Bow Creek living in "a little forgotten world of its own". That I am sure is true, and many Poplar folk were unaware of the existence of the village of Bow Creek and indeed of the Creek itself.

Bow Creek was not of course unique, although it was more secluded than most, such communities existed in a variety of situations, most of them in the vicinity of an industrial area. Thinking of a suitable designation for such gatherings of groups living apart from the main stream of life, all that I could come up with was "communal hermitage"; and that was hardly a suitable description, the village was isolated but its inhabitants were certainly in no way hermits. Life in the community would seem to have been a close knit warm interdependent collection of individuals. A common characteristic of the inhabitants would appear to be that of dogged individualism .

I had assumed that the origin of this tightly knit community was in origin basically Cockney! But the registers record an influx of workers from Tyneside and St. Helens, who, in 1840 came to work at the Thames Plate Glass works. These works closed in 1874 and the glass workers are said to have moved to Indiana. U.S.A. There were probably other immigrants to the Creek, but fewer in numbers, by the time of its dispersal some families could point to having a history of several generations in the local community.

It is estimated that up to about 1875 the Glass works employed seventy five per cent of the population, intense competition forced its closure. It is claimed that all the plate glass used in building the Crystal Palace was made there.

An unusual local industry was the fishing fleet which shrimped from a base in the Creek, and described in The Daily Sketch as "The fisherman's dockland Hamlet of Bow Creek", accompanied by an article describing a meeting protesting against a plan by the Poplar Borough to clear what the newspaper described as one of the worst slums in London.

The population of this waterside dwelling at the time of its clearance was estimated to be one hundred and mentions several small businesses. Some boats were moored on the river bank a few yards from the owners houses. It is said that at the beginning of the nineteen hundreds shrimps could be caught at the mouth of Bow Creek, at the time of the clearance it was necessary to sail as far Gravesend before fishing could begin. The description of Bow Creek by the Daily Sketch as one of the most romantic places on the riverside owes more to artistic license than reality.

Despite its reputation for being a rough living population, existing, in grim circumstances, and living in housing of poor quality ever at risk of flooding, one gets the feeling that community lived in an atmosphere of perpetual dampness. Despite these adverse conditions, it is claimed that the education of the children was not neglected. The educational statistics for the Creek cannot, I think, be more than rough and ready, particularly for the pre-first world war period. There were censuses in 1851 and 1861 in which the enumerator used the term scholars. The occasional teacher is also enumerated. There seems to have been school facilities, whatever they consisted of, in a building that later is shown as a Mission Hall on at the southern corner of Orchard Place and Leamouth Road. In 1874 a formal school, what ever that implied, was housed in a converted warehouse once known as Wrights Buildings. By 1894 this building was too small to cope with the average number of children attending. This despite extensions that were made in 1891. The London School Board was fortunate in being able to purchase at a reasonable price part of the site of the old Glass works, and on this built a new-purpose designed school.

I am puzzled at the capacity of the new building which would be suitable for the accomodation of 350 pupils, in six class rooms and a hall. There was a generous sized playground enclosed by high walls in the interests of safety. The number of the pupils provided for, suggests a larger population in Bow Creek than I had imagined. In 1936 when the L.C.C. slum clearance scheme was implemented all the children were transferred to Oban Street School. In those days buildings were built to last and the school was still standing in 1956.

Although most of the children came from very poor homes and began their school life with great handicaps the authorities were impressed by the high standards achieved.

On the map There is a building marked as "Mission Hall", is this, I wonder , "The Good Shepherd Mission" which I have heard of in some other context. I am sure that when the radical priest Father Grocer was prevented from holding an appointment, he helped at a Mission of that name.

© Arthur Royall March 2012

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to the use of cookies. More Info