Poplar, Tower Hamlets

Almost literally a stone’s throw from the top of Canary Wharf’s towers, Poplar is a histor­ically poor East End district where regen­eration projects continue to try to improve the quality of life

Flats above shops on the Lansbury estate

Flats on the Lansbury estate

Poplar takes its name from the native trees (Populus canescens and Populus nigra) that once thrived on the moist alluvial soil beside the marshes. From the 17th century Poplar provided homes for workers at the docks that lined the riverfront from Limehouse around the Isle of Dogs to Blackwall. It became one of London’s first multi-​​ethnic districts, with inhab­itants of Indian, Chinese and ‘Nubian’ origin.

The opening of the West India Docks in 1802 stimulated a rapid growth in housing devel­opment, mainly mean terraces of rented cottages. In 1817 Poplar became a parish, with All Saints consecrated as its parish church six years later.

Poplar Fields, the area north of East India Dock Road, was built up as Poplar New Town from the 1830s to the mid-​​1850s. By the late 19th century, poverty and overcrowding were rife.

The borough of Poplar, created in 1900, soon gained a reputation for political radicalism, especially for the Labour council’s demand that London’s wealth should be distributed more evenly among its constituent parts. The borough’s determ­ination to relieve adequately the suffering of its poor was nicknamed ‘Poplarism’ by the Glasgow Herald in 1922 and the term became generic for allegedly spend­thrift Labour councils.

The district now consists mostly of council-​​built flats and houses dating from the 1950s to the 1970s, notably on the Lansbury estate (shown in the photograph above). Only a few structures – mainly churches, pubs and public buildings – pre-​​date the Second World War.

Thirty years ago public housing accounted for 97.6 per cent of Poplar’s dwellings. The new world that soon afterwards sprouted on the Isle of Dogs brought some private resid­ential devel­opments here but there was little scope or appetite to build the kind of apartment complexes that have trans­formed nearby localities like Blackwall. After all, poor people have to live somewhere in Docklands.

Poplar High Street has Tower Hamlets College’s largest campus – but not much else in the way of amenities. Poplar’s real high street is Chrisp Street, which has been a focus of recent regen­eration efforts, along with the zone now called Poplar Riverside – the river in question being the Lea. A DLR station has opened at Langdon Park and the disused Old Poplar Library has been restored as a ‘seedbed’ for start-​​up businesses. Other projects aim to overcome the barrier-​​like presence of the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach.

Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953, lived in Poplar in the early 1900s as a political refugee.

Postal district: E14
Station: Docklands Light Railway, all branches (zone 2)
Further reading: John Hector, Poplar Memories, Sutton, 2003
See also: South Bromley


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