The History of Millwall

A short history of Millwall, one of the most influential but also one of the most overlooked parts of east London. Part of Historic UK’s ‘Secret London’ series.

Seven windmills once stood on the western side of the Isle of Dogs, helping to give this part of the island the name ‘Millwall’. The ‘wall’ was in fact a great bank of earth and stones, perhaps dating back to the Roman era and certainly in use by the early Middle Ages. This bank of earth kept the river from flooding the island at high tide, allowing the surrounding land to be cultivated for farmland.

The wall was wide, certainly wide enough for the windmills and for the path that ran along it, and stretched around the peninsula towards the area now known as Blackwall.

An old map of Millwall and the Isle of Dogs, with the seven windmills clearly visible on the western side of the peinsula. The outline of the ‘wall’ is also seen along the river bank.

The windmills, some of which had been used for grinding corn, disappeared in the early nineteenth century when wind power was replaced by the power of the steam engine. In their place, new factories sprang up along the wall which was strengthened and straightened at the river’s edge to allow ships and barges to be unloaded.

It was during this time that Millwall changed from a rather isolated peninsula of farmland and mills to the heart of London’s ship building industry. In fact, it was along the site of the old medieval mills that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ill fated SS Great Eastern was both built and launched from.

SS Great Eastern from the London Illustrated News
The SS Great Eastern being built in Millwall

However, by the 1880s the tight meanders of the River Thames could no longer support the launching of the heavier and larger ships that was being built, and engineering, chemical works and food processing industry quickly replaced the area’s declining ship industry.

These industries, along with the docks, survived throughout the early 20th century. However, by the 1970s the country’s economic downturn had taken its toll on the Isle of Dogs and within a space of 20 years most of the local industries had closed down. Some of these industries were absorbed into larger companies, whilst others had outgrown their Victorian premises and needed to move to larger, more modern buildings outside of London.

In terms of the docks, these could no longer handle the larger container ships that were demanded by modern trade. Instead, most of the ships were now using the larger, deep water container ports of Felixstowe, Southampton and Tibury.

The decline of the Millwall was mirrored throughout the entire east end of London, and in 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up to regenerate the area.

After only 30 years, the redevelopment of Millwall and the surrounding area is nothing less than astonishing. The old factories of the Isle of Dogs have been replaced by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, and the area now supports the second largest financial centre in Europe (behind the City of London). Millwall itself is now a predominantly residential area, full of modern high rise apartment blocks, many costing over a million pounds each.

Canary Wharf, as seen from North Greenwich.

If you’re in the area, a great walk along the old ‘Millwall’ (now a part of the Thames Path route) is from Canary Wharf to Greenwich, leading you past the remains of the SS Great Eastern’s launch ramp and through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Getting here
Easily accessible by both bus and rail, please try our London Transport Guide for help in getting around the capital.

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