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Poplar in the Past
From: "The Copartnership Herald", Vol. III, no. 32 (October 1933)

Doubts have, from time to time, arisen concerning the derivation of the name (formerly spelt Popler, and, earlier, Popeler) of the some-time hamlet within the manor of Stepney which, in 1817, was created a separate parish. The name, originally given to a lonely stretch of territory away from the busy haunts of men, which eventually became known in all the ports of the world, was, by reason of the fame of its former shipbuilding yards and importance of its Docks, conferred on the large metropolitan borough in 1900, when it was incorporated with the parishes of Bromley St. Leonard and St. Mary Stratford Bow. It has been generally accepted that the description, Poplar, was due to many trees of the kind commonly so called, which once grew in the locality. A learned resident writing in the early part of the eighteenth century testified to this being the actual case in his day, but this evidence in support is in itself slender, and does not overcome the difficulty implied by the absence of the plural number. Granting the accepted derivation as being true, it would appear more likely that a single specimen of the tree stood and flourished on the rising ground north of the Isle of Dogs (otherwise the Isle of Ducks), and that it was not only visible from afar, but was long held in view by those who passed along the great bend of the river between Limehouse and the Lea mouth.

The area now occupied by the Docks, Cubitt Town, and Millwall, was long ago nothing more than marshland. It is not, however, to be thought of as a dismal swamp, for from early times it had been embanked, and had given sheep and cattle rich pasturage. Its intersection by ditches and its liability to inundation made it no fit place of habitation for man. The foreshore yielded a plentiful supply of rushes to strew upon stone floors, and for the weaving of mats, besides osiers for basket work, for thatching and for kiddels - a wicker cage-like contrivance for catching fish. The responsibility for the maintenance of the dykes for draining, and for the prevention of breaches in the river walls, primarily belonged to the manor of Stepney, which was held by the Bishop of London from Saxon times until Tudor days. In the fourteenth century this obligation of preserving the marshes was committed to the care of the newly-founded monastery of St. Mary Graces by the Tower of London. The consideration for carrying out so onerous a task (in 1449 the tide broke through and "a thousand acres were drowned ") can be conjectured to have been, as in similar cases, the possession of grazing rights on the marsh, and the conveyance of some of the adjacent upland, to be held by copyhold tenure with the power to sublet. It was in the upland, that is away from the marshland and not implying any great degree of elevation, that the nucleus of the hamlet of Poplar came into existence, but when, no one can say.

In 1499 a certain William Marowe, citizen of London, in his will provided that "his wood in Middlesex and Essex except such as (if removed) should disfigure his place at Popler to be sold if necessary for the repair of his corne house in Pety wales, his tenement in Philpot Lane" [London]. This reference suggests a well-kept and cared-for country house, and the possibility of corn being cultivated in the vicinity, and implies as well a population, however sparse, for it cannot reasonably be thought that the worthy citizen was a hermit and dwelt in solitude.

At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1586 the property of St. Mary Graces was seized by Henry VIII and the land was subsequently granted to various persons subject to the performance of the obligations of maintaining the river embankment and ditches or by a money payment to commute the liability.

About this time there was much activity in draining marshland in eastern England, and Dutchmen were induced to come over and undertake the work in which they were experienced. Whether the fact has any connection with this matter or not, a Robert Dericke, a Dutchman, came to England with a fellow countryman who was a yeoman-armourer to the King, and founded the distinguished Dethick family that lived in Poplar for nearly two centuries. His son, Sir Gilbert Dethick, who was born in 1519, and died in 1584, was Garter King-of-Arms and employed in public affairs. He was rewarded by Henry VIII with the grant of a mansion and an acre of land at Poplar. His son Sir William Dethick, who was born in 1543, after serving several important offices in the College of Heralds, succeeded his father as Garter King-of-Arms, and was knighted by James I. In his exalted and dignified office he took part in several missions to foreign princes and in the pageantry of imposing ceremonials. But he was a man of violent temper and cordially detested by everyone; in his youth he had drawn upon himself the parental curse for striking his father and stabbing his brother. In the next generation one of his sons, Henry Dethick, was a prominent man in local affairs. He was one of the representatives of Poplar on the Stepney Vestry, and was churchwarden in 1639, the year in which he died. He married, 1 January 1618, Elizabeth, daughter of Captain Thomas Best, of White Horse Street, who was a pioneer in establishing British power in India.

The story of the Dethick family who, it may be said, endeavoured to conceal their alien origin, is not to be told here, but further reference to the house they lived in has a certain interest, one quite sufficient on account of its subsequent history to warrant a brief digression. The mansion became the reputed Manor House of Poplar, a title that had no legal significance, as no new manor with its customary court could possibly be created. On its site there stood as late as 1810 an old timbered house which, being reported to be in a dilapidated and dangerous condition, was demolished. The property, with additional land adjoining, then belonged to Mrs. Wade, the widow of Jeremiah Wade, a most hospitable lady and one who was generous to the poor. She built and resided in the present commodious house, which in her time was surrounded by an extensive garden. A portion of this was taken for making Wade Street and Shirbutt Street (originally called Cross Street) and the straightening of Hale Street. Another portion of the garden was purchased in 1840 by the late Mr. George Green, and he erected thereon a parsonage house for the minister of Trinity Chapel in the East India Dock Road. Fifty years later, in 1892, this house was sold to the trustees of the Missions to Seamen, who had it pulled down, and in its place erected as their headquarters the red-brick building, collegiate in appearance, that has now been acquired by the Commercial Gas Company as the Copartnership Institute.

The old Manor House was approached from Poplar High Street. Until the construction of the East India Dock Road a little more than a century ago, the only road into Poplar was that of Limehouse Causeway across Penny Fields - or round them by Back Lane, now King Street - into High Street, which formed the line of communication with Blackwall. The expression "to go to Poplar" once really meant the going to this street, for there the social life and business was to be found. Out of this thoroughfare, just over a half mile in length, went North Street, which, after going less than four hundred yards, continued as a cart track and soon lost itself in the fields. This way, when the weather permitted, the inhabitants went to Stepney Church, for there was no place of worship at Poplar until 1654. Otherwise they would have to go through the Causeway into Limehouse, and from thence by Church Lane, which had its name long before St. Ann's Church was erected. The rural aspect of North Street is called to mind when reference is made to one of the substantial men of Poplar living in this street who sat on the Stepney Vestry early in the seventeenth century as being described as a" yeoman."

There is a tradition that Sebastian Cabot, Sir Thomas Spert, and Sir Walter Raleigh once lived here. In the case of Raleigh a particular house has been associated with him. While there can be little hesitation in accepting the suggestion that they were personally acquainted with Blackwall, there is no evidence conclusive of their having lived there in the sense of the term.

It was the coming of the East India Company to Blackwall that first affected the life of the neighbourhood. In 1597 Lord Wentworth, who then held the Manor of Stepney, granted the lease for five hundred years of a parcel of land whereon the Company, whose charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1600, established their yard. Their activities in building and fitting out ships began about 1612. In 1621 it was leased to Sir Thomas Smith, Robert Johnson and others, and in 1652 the Company gave it up, and then it passed successively to Henry Johnson and his son Sir Henry (who was knighted at Blackwall in 1679), Messrs. Perry & Sons, and finally to Messrs. Green and Wigram - names one and all that bear witness to the great maritime achievements that were the glory of their times.

In Poplar there was no sudden change such as comes from an influx of artisans. The scope of the East India Company's establishment was too limited for that to occur, but families whose heads were concerned with maritime affairs were attracted to reside in its vicinity. In those days it must have been a pleasant walk - a mile and a half - from Limehouse (where perhaps one had landed from London by the waterman's boat) to Blackwall Yard, where carpenter and smith, wise in their work, gave forth with mallet beat and hammer stroke a pleasing rhythm. The population was not large. In 1665, when the Great Plague came and took its toll, it is estimated to have been about 2,500. Its relative position with regard to the parish of Stepney can be arrived at by the proportion which the Vestry allocated its receipts and expenses. The parish was divided into eighths. Ratcliff being fixed at three eighths, Limehouse two-eighths, Mile End Old Town (including Bethnal Green) two-eighths, and Poplar one-eighth.

In 1627 the East India Company founded a hospital "for the releife of such as have or shall be maimed or decayed by the Companies service" and for that purpose purchased "a very large and convenient bricke house with some three acres of ground thereunto belonging, lyeing in Blackwall" and, behind the house, "a faire field with a dainty rowe of elmes and a private garden wherein a chapple may be built of ninety foote in length and thirty-two foote in breadth." Although described as being "at Blackwall," the property faced and was entered from Poplar High Street. In 1633, in response to a petition of the inhabitants for a chapel, the Company decided that it was "more proper to fitt and endow the Hospitall with a competency of lands to maintaine the poore before they expend more mony in building."

In 1642 the Company granted to the inhabitants of Blackwall and Poplar a piece of ground behind their almshouses for the purpose of erecting a chapel, but it was not until 1653-4 that it was built. It was a small building and was replaced in 1776 by St. Matthias Church.

The East India Company's Hospital, Poplar, 1799The illustration [left] shows the old Hospital (or Almshouses) as they were in 1799. They were in a bad condition, and three years later they were removed. New almshouses were built in the form of a quadrangle for occupation by the sailors, and a group of houses for commanders and mates. These almshouses were maintained until 1866, when the occupants were pensioned off and the buildings pulled down. Their site, with the ground immediately behind them, which had been used as an allotment for the use of those occupying the almshouses, in all about five acres, was purchased at a cost of 12,000 by the Poplar Board of Works, and in 1867 opened to the use of the public as the Poplar Recreation Ground.

It has been said that Poplar has many faces. If the one that has been presented may seem somewhat strange, perhaps at another time we shall be able to present one that is more familiar. Those readers who from the windows of the Copartnership Institute view the Recreation Ground where the children play and the aged take their ease, will perhaps reflect that it lies between the old High Street and the modern East India Dock Road, and that these are the product of two periods, one representing what is past and well-nigh forgotten, the other still wanting and waiting for the greatness that was promised in its early years.

by Sydney Maddocks

Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.