John Betjeman on the Isle of Dogs…
I recently discovered that the nations favorite poet (certainly mine anyway) John Betjeman, that esteemed arbiter of good taste, sensible architecture and Gentlemanly manners, visited the Isle of Dogs back in the Spring of 1956.
Writing a piece for his regular “City & Suburban” column in the Spectator Magazine (a facsimile copy of which can be found here), Betjeman describes my chosen little bit of London as “a cut off kingdom”, remote and populated by proud people and ruined buildings… I get the distinct impression that his visit so far east of the city was something of a novelty, a change from the more leafy suburbs and halcyon times of which he always wrote so eloquently.
Along with this more usual interest in churches, public houses and dockside wharfs, its interesting to note that Betjeman writes about a then recently completed housing scheme, Castalia Square, comparing it favorably with the more widely known Lansbury Estate in Poplar at the top of the Island. Lansbury was a key aspect of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and is a subject I’ve written about in detail previously.
I must say I’ve walked through the Castalia Sqaure area many times, and although the houses are indeed nicely proportioned with now well established gardens and tree lined courtyards, the square itself must have looked very different 60 years ago, as since its refurbishment back in the 90’s, the large commercial building fronting the square looks rather nondescript and undistinguished, or maybe this is a later addition and wasn’t there at the time of John’s visit…
He’s dead right about Island Gardens though. A beautiful little park with an amazing view of Greenwich and well worth a visit, especially from the south with a walk through the foot tunnel, which I’m surprised Betjeman didn’t mention in his article. Maybe it was still closed after being bombed during the war.
Anyway I’ll leave you with a picture of the great man himself, as full of life as always, and the complete text of his piece…
“In the evening sunlight on Monday, I went to that least visited part of London, the Isle of Dogs. It’s more than a square mile of docks, houses: shattered Victorian churches, no train service, no cinema, a bus service, and only approachable by swing bridges. The people on the Island are proud of it and don’t like living anywhere else. Poplar people on the mainland don’t like coming to live on the Island.
It is a cut-off kingdom, the remotest thing you can find in London, and was very badly bombed in the war. Among the ruins three sights well worth the journey are to be seen. (1) Coldharbour, near Blackwall Basin, where some fine Georgian merchants’ houses have the water washing up to their walls and where a public house looks over Blackwall Reach. (2) Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Island, which commands the best view of Greenwich Hospital there is. Reflected in the water one sees the doomed Union Wharf beside the Hospital, with its weather-boarded houses, Queen’s House, and in the background the trees of Greenwich Park and the outline of the Observatory.
(3) One of the best new housing estates I have seen since the war, comparable with Lansbury, intimately proportioned, cheerful and airy and yet London-like. It is called Castalia Square and makes one realise. when one compares it with the gloomy blocks of ‘artisans’ dwellings’ of the mid-war and pre-1914 periods, how good modern architecture can be. In all the destruction I record in this column, it is a pleasure to be able to write about something newly built which makes one’s heart rejoice.”