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Introduction to "No-Man's Land"


"London's Lost Village "

"Bow Creek had a golden age once. Now it is a lost village of London, full of humanities and kindly humans,
and its inhabitants live in a little forgotten world of their own"

"....isolated colony of fisherfolk..."

"....Poplar's romantic village..."

"....forgotten hamlet..."

The above quotations, from articles and newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century, romanticise, and even idyllicise, this remote corner of London's East End Docklands. Yet life for the hardy inhabitants of this small and isolated community, locked within the final tortuous swirls of the River Lea (here called Bow Creek) as it approaches its confluence with the River Thames, must have been hard and uncomfortable.

The land comprising the butterfly-like peninsulas of Good Luck Hope and Orchard Place/Trinity Wharf was at best for most of its history only a few feet above the river, and subject to the vagaries of tide and flood along the two rivers. Living conditions must have been pretty grim, with ever-present damp and vermin, housing of poor construction, and work in the adjacent industries or on the river hard and unrelenting.

Originally part of Poplar East Marsh but cut off from the rest of Poplar by the construction in 1806 of the East India Docks, it was indeed an isolated place. Access was only possible by a long lonely trudge from East India Dock Road, down between the huge forbidding brick walls of the Dock premises along both flanks of Orchard Street (later Leamouth Road) to Orchard House, made worse when the East India Dock Basin was enlarged in 1874.

To quote an un-named source "……… the Orchard House district of Bow Creek, an area said to be inhabited by a piratical and predatory population and described as a sort of Alsatia for hereditary dock thieves … … …". Whether this is literary license or just plain hyperbole is not known, but from contemporary accounts by local residents it was certainly a spirited and self-contained community. Intermarriage between the various families living here was very prevalent, caused largely by the lack of social interaction with "the outside world", some families having been established on Orchard House for many generations.

Studying the various Censuses, it is clear that there was a large migrant population on the peninsulas. For instance, during the 1840's and 50's there was a large influx from Tyneside and St Helens, Lancashire, coming to work at the Thames Plate Glass Works. These works closed in 1874, and a lot of the glass workers emigrated to New Albany, Indiana, USA, where of course there must still be people with their roots buried in East London's "lost village".

Despite its reputation for rough-living inhabitants, education of the children of Orchard House was not neglected. The 1851 and 1861 Censuses show many young children as "Scholars", and even a few teachers were enumerated, though at which school is unclear. There appears to have been schooling facilities in a building, later shown as a Mission Hall, at the southern corner of Orchard Place and Leamouth Road, in what was once known as Wrights Buildings or Terrace. Then, opening in 1874, a formal school occupied a converted warehouse at the corner of Duke Street and Orchard Place, and next door to the "Crown Public House".

By 1894, despite being extended in 1891/92, the Duke Street school premises could no longer accommodate the average attendance. The London School Board took the opportunity to buy part of the old glass works site when it became available "on favourable terms", sold off the Duke Street site, and built a new purpose-designed school nearly eight times the size of the old one capable of accommodating up to 350 children. It contained a hall, four classrooms, two infant schoolrooms, and there was a generous sized playground, all enclosed in the interests of safety by high walls. It opened and signed in the first new pupils on 12th October 1896.

Thus was born the Bow Creek London Board School, whose Pupil Admissions Register is the core subject of this Project. The school building survived the LCC slum clearance scheme in 1936 when all the pupils transferred to Oban Street School, and was still standing in 1956 when the LCC sold the site. It has since been demolished.

Although most of the school's pupils came from "very poor homes", and began their school life "with a considerable handicap", the school seems to have consistently impressed the authorities with its achievements and standards. In 1932 the LCC Education Officer wrote that "far from being a school which required an apology, it was one which might serve as a demonstration school." The curriculum embraced "careful moral training, including the proper treatment of animals", and, appropriately in an area surrounded by deep water, swimming lessons. The value of the latter was shown on the 28th August 1909 when a girl at the school (Florence MANNING - age 13) was awarded the Royal Humane Society's Bronze Medal for rescuing another from drowning in the River Lea. Albert BLYTHE is also said to have gained the Society's Medal for saving the life of a fellow Scholar - a LAMMIN.

The Authors hope that old pupils or their descendants will contact them with more information about life at the School, hopefully with old documents or photographs which could be incorporated into the website. It is further hoped that the users of this website will find it an invaluable additional and, to date, undiscovered historical and genealogical resource on the history and background of Bow Creek, Leamouth, Poplar - London's "Forgotten Village" - and its inhabitants.

Special mention must be made of and our gratitude expressed to the London Metropolitan Archives and their Staff for all their assistance and willing help, particularly in allowing Eileen Weston to use the original Register for her transcription.

This has been enormously helped in its latter checking stages by the use of a newly-introduced digital reading machine for the less able (D.A.V.E. = Document And Video Enlarger a.k.a. ODIN) at the L.M.A.

Our thanks are also extended to Chris Lloyd and his staff at the Tower Hamlets Library, Bancroft Street, Tower Hamlets, for their assistance in providing much of the background information used in teasing out the history of this fascinating and "forgotten" corner of the East End of London.

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About the Authors and the Project

Eileen Weston:

Geoff Matthews:

Geoff has been a family history researcher for many years now, along with interests in other historical subjects such as the early development of steam engines, particularly in the collieries of Northeast England, and has other strong interests in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, especially pertaining to things mechanical.

Although born and brought up in Nelson, a cotton-weaving town in North-East Lancashire, Geoff moved to University at Nottingham in 1961 to read for a degree in Civil Engineering, and has remained in that city ever since, eventually becoming Chief Bridge Manager at Nottinghamshire County Council before retiring in June 2000. During that time he spent many years compiling a history of Nottinghamshire bridges and the major waterways in the Trent Valley.

About 10 years ago he started his own genealogical research, concentrating at first on his maternal line with the surname CHICKEN. Eventually, having taken his CHICKEN line back to the late 1500’s in Northumbria and having gained so much knowledge and data about this surname, he became a Member of the Guild of One-Name Studies (No. 2457) and set up the

Chicken Family History and Chicken Genealogy Website at

This website is a focus for CHICKEN's and their descendants across the world, providing information on the name, its origins, ancient and modern locations of families, and point of contact for the increasing numbers of people researching this unusual surname.

The School Register Indexing Project:

One of Geoff’s ancestors, WILLIAM CHICKEN, who disappears from the record after his baptism in Heworth, Co. Durham, in 1806, turned up as owner of a Boilermaking Company at Russell Street (now Yabsley Street) in the Blackwall area of Poplar, London, in 1845. In 1848 he went into partnership with one JOHN STEWART, also from Tyneside and who had similar interests at Rotherhithe and Wapping, in a joint company of engineers and founders called "Chicken & Stewart, Boilermakers" near the entrance to the West India Docks.

Stewart went on to form the famous shipbuilding company of John Stewart and Son, moving his operations across the Thames from Rotherhithe and away from Wapping to a new yard at Folly Wall, Millwall, known as the "Blackwall Iron Works". Stewart's business, through many vicissitudes, lasted till 1924 in London's Docklands. William Chicken parted company from him under mysterious circumstances around 1854, and then turned up between 1855 and 1859 as the landlord of the "Ironbridge Tavern", East India Dock Road (aka Barking Road), Poplar. This hostelry became famous in the 1970's as the setting for the television series "Stars and Garters" run by Queenie Watts and her husband Slim. A much-modified pub still stands on that site and is used now as an immigrants hostel. This pub of course got it's name from the nearby "IRON BRIDGE" carrying the East India Dock Road to Canning Town and Barking over the River Lea/Bow Creek

William, who in his later life called himself alternatively a Cement Manufacturer and, on his Death Certificate, a Manure Manufacturer (!!), died of apoplexy (or probably too much booze) on Christmas Eve 1866 in yet another pub, the "Captain Man of War", in Poplar High Street. In his Will, he bequeathed all his possessions plus "… all my stock in trade as a Cement Manufacturer now carried on by me at Orchard House…" to his sister Mary Newton (nee Chicken) of Sunderland, widow of the late Robert Newton, Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Robert served as an Able Seaman on the "Neptune", the ship second in line to the "Victory" at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Robert seems to have had a most exciting time on this and other ships on various stations, being one of those rare sailors of that time who rose through the ranks from A.B., receiving his commission as Lieutenant in February 1815.

The Orchard House or Orchard Place area, on a double peninsula between Bow Creek (River Lea) and the River Thames, is a very complex and remote part of East London, having undergone many changes of street and building layout and street names as the East India Docks and its surrounding industry developed in the middle and late 19th century. As noted above it has been described as "London's Lost Village" and has been a very difficult area to research, trying to trace William Chicken's movements. Even today it is difficult of access, being cut off from the rest of East London by motorways, the rivers, and the depredations of the Docklands Development Corporation. Cleared of most of its housing in 1936 under Slum Clearance Orders, today it is under even more threat from Developers and the planned Olympic Village stretching from here up the Lea Valley to Stratford.

Eileen Weston, whom Geoff first met during his William Chicken and other London Chicken Coop researches and without whom he would never have found so much about him in the East End of London, became interested in the general history of this “forgotten” area. She called it "No-Man's Land". In her usual diligent and persistent way and with much damned hard work she did an enormous amount to winkle out of the records so much information about Orchard House and its history and inhabitants.

During her research at the L.M.A. she stumbled upon the Bow Creek School Pupil Admission Register, which was in a very poor condition. She realised what an invaluable and probably unknown historical and genealogical resource this could be, covering the period 1896 to 1935, straddling the 1901 Census date and the First World War period, and giving real details of some 1260 pupils at the school during those four decades. Further, she realised that, since the Register ended as recently as 1935, there would still be quite a few pupils at the Bow Creek School who were likely to be still living (or with immediate extant descendants) and who may well be able to flesh out the history of this lost corner of the East End from their living memories or family stories. Or at least they would be able to find out more personal details about their own family histories.

Since the original Register was in such poor condition, and the filmed version was frankly poor, the possibility was discussed of Eileen transcribing this book and Geoff doing the Indexing and Database work on computer from this transcription, with a view to either publishing it on CD-Rom or on a Website. This work has taken about three years to bring to fruition, with all the hard tedious donkey-work being undertaken by Eileen at the London end. Geoff has undertaken all the computer work, devising the Database and the Indexes.

In the end it was decided that a website devoted to this Register and its transcription would be a better vehicle for disseminating the information gleaned during the work, and would probably reach a far wider audience than just publishing a CD-Rom. The Project has, like Topsy, grown quite extensively from its original ambitions, since the Authors felt that it would be much better to put the School and its Register into a much broader context of the life and history of this unique part of London’s East End. Hence the web pages devoted to other aspects of Orchard House Place.

Apologies must be offered at this point that the website is not yet complete. The bare bones of it are here, particularly the Index, and various pages based on our gathered information are still in the course of preparation.

It is hoped that people researching their family history in “London’s Lost Village”, or indeed others with a more general interest in the area, will find this web site a useful new resource, and contact from such people will be welcomed by the Authors. They have gathered much background material, which has not been possible to incorporate (yet!) on the website.

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Developed by and Copyright of Geoff Matthews & Eileen Weston - August 2004
[Amended/Updated -     23rd August 2004]