Silvertown, Newham

A slowly regenerating dockland district situated between the Thames and Royal Victoria Dock

Tate & Lyle’s Silvertown sugar refinery

Indus­try and accom­pa­ny­ing hous­ing grew up on the marsh­es here after the cut­ting of the rail­way to North Wool­wich in 1847, prompt­ing the open­ing of Silvertown’s own sta­tion in 1863. The town takes its name from one of the first man­u­fac­tur­ers, SW Silver’s rub­ber works.

In 1877 Hen­ry Tate set up his sug­ar cube fac­to­ry in Sil­ver­town and four years lat­er Abram Lyle began to pro­duce Gold­en Syrup at near­by Plais­tow Wharf. Trea­cle refiner­ies and jam mak­ers also estab­lished them­selves here, giv­ing rise to the nick­name ‘the sug­ar mile’ for the indus­tri­alised high­way con­sist­ing of Sil­ver­town Way, North Wool­wich Road and Fac­to­ry Road.

In 1889 a strike at Sil­ver’s fac­to­ry paral­ysed Sil­ver­town for three months and influ­enced the evo­lu­tion of trade union­ism in Lon­don. John Tul­ly’s book on the sub­ject is sub­ti­tled “The lost sto­ry of a strike that shook Lon­don and helped launch the mod­ern labour move­ment.”

London’s largest ever explo­sion occurred in 1917 at the Brun­ner Mond muni­tions fac­to­ry. Sev­en­ty-three peo­ple were killed and much of the town was destroyed, only to be rebuilt after the war along the same lines as before.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War Sil­ver­town was a prime tar­get for Ger­man bomb­ing. On one occa­sion a ring of fire forced the Wool­wich fer­ries to mount a Dunkirk-style evac­u­a­tion of the inhab­i­tants. The effect of wartime bomb­ing in Sil­ver­town is shown in Gra­ham Sutherland’s paint­ing Dev­as­ta­tion, 1941: An East End Street (1941, Tate Col­lec­tion).

Sil­ver­town sta­tion closed in 2006, though sta­tions on the DLR exten­sion to Wool­wich have ensured that the dis­trict remains well served by rail. Recent res­i­den­tial devel­op­ments have pri­mar­i­ly focused on West Sil­ver­town. The regen­er­a­tion of the dock­side area known as Sil­ver­town Quays – north of Pon­toon Dock sta­tion – may begin rel­a­tive­ly soon, after sev­er­al pre­vi­ous­ly pro­posed schemes had failed to get off the draw­ing board.

Mark Knopfler’s song Silvertown Blues contrasts scenes of desolation in turn-of-the-millennium Silvertown with the economic boom taking place elsewhere in Docklands: on the Greenwich peninsula, in Blackwall and at London City Airport.

Postal district: E16
Further reading: Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End, Collins, 2012
and Glyn Maxwell, The Sugar Mile (poetry), Picador, 2005
and Melanie McGrath, Silvertown: An East End family memoir, Fourth Estate, 2002