by Ben Johnson
Coldharbour is one of the few streets on the Isle of Dogs that has avoided 19th and 20th century development, and as such provides visitors with a wonderful trip back in time to when this area was the greatest port in the world. With its mixture of cobbled streets, old houses, thin passageways, and wonderful public house, this street has an unsurprising amount of history associated with it.
Coldharbour came to life with the building of the nearby East India Company’s shipbuilding yard in 1614, which encouraged the growth of the entire Isle of Dogs area. Over the next century, and with the rapid industrialisation of the Blackwall area, the street began to flourish due to its riverside location.
Coldharbour continued to flourish until a strange twist of fate during the early 19th century. As the construction of both the City Canal and the West India Docks went ahead, it became apparently that these waterways were effectively cutting off the street from the rest of the area. In the space of ten years Coldharbour had gone from being a thriving street in the heart of the industrial docklands to being a forgotten backwater!
Perhaps it is because of this that so much history has survived recent developments. Number 1 Coldharbour (the rather grand house at the top of the street, named Isle House) was built in 1825 and was the former West India Dockmaster’s house. Number 3 (known locally as Nelson’s House) was built even earlier during 1820 and although local legend says that Nelson once lived here, there is unfortunately no proof to substantiate the claim.
Our personal favourite building in Coldharbour is The Gun public house. There has actually been a pub on this site since at least 1720, although the majority of the current building was built in the 19th century. It is said that Lord Nelson was once a regular drinker in The Gun, frequenting it whenever he visited the area to inspect the nearby docks. In fact, rumour has it that Lord Nelson often arranged secret rendezvous with Lady Emma Hamilton in an upstairs room!
The Gun also has age old associations with smugglers and pirates, who before entering central London would dock their ship at the waters edge, offload their contraband and distribute it via a secret tunnel. A spy-hole, once used as a lookout for the authorities, still remains in one of the staircases within the pub!