A testimony to its industrial roots, Bow is criss-crossed by rivers, cuts, canals, railways and roads, and right in the middle is Fish Island. Separated from the rest of Bow by the A12, Fish Island nevertheless still falls in the ward of Bow East and shares the E3 postcode. With your help, we’ve uncovered the rich history of the Island, from marsh to workers’ town, from industrial estate to artists’ haven.
First of all, Fish Island is not really an island. The 50-acre plot of land is in the shape of an isosceles triangle with water on two sides. The Hertford Union Canal forms the north border, the River Lea runs along the length, and the A12 on the third side.
Hackney Wick, on the other hand, is north of the canal and sits in the elbow of the A12.
How Fish Island was formed
Fish Island stands where a ford used to be. It was the main crossing point between London and Essex until the early 12th century, when a stone bridge was built half a mile downstream. The bridge was in the shape of a bow, eventually naming the place.
The first settlement recorded at the Fish Island was Old Ford, which can be traced back to the 13th century.
The village was surrounded by a marshy floodplain, carved through with canals in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Hertford Union was built in 1830, forming the Island’s northern border, and a railway built shortly after, making its western one.
At around the same time, the Old Ford Marsh was drained, creating more land to build on. Fish Island was fully formed.
In 1865, the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company bought 30-acres of Fish Island to build a new works, but ultimately decided to put their factory in Bromley-by-Bow. The company instead developed the land into a factory town, filling the streets with workers’ houses and smaller factories.
And Dickens wasn’t wrong about the East End. Fish Island became known for its poverty and its poorly built temporary housing, a corner of Victorian London reserved for the working classes.
It was around this time that Fish Island became Fish Island. Originally known just as ‘the Island’, it picked up its scaley nickname from its streets, which were all named after freshwater fish: Bream Street, Roach Road, Dace Road. Listen to the Idea Store’s podcasts about Fish Island for some more wonderful stories.
Fish Island’s industrial past
By the beginning of the 20th century, Old Ford was an area of hustling and bustling, smokey and sooty industry.
Raw imported materials, such as crude oil, rubber and sugar, would travel into London down the Thames, up the canals, through the locks and into the East End. Once they got to Fish Island, they were turned into products and sold throughout England.
From 1907 to 1924, one of the factories housed a printing works, specialising in bank notes and postage stamps. There was a glue factory, pickle factory and peanut company, and along the canal stood timber yards and furniture workshops.
The six buildings in the northern part of Fish Island make up what is London’s, and possibly England’s, largest group of surviving industrial buildings with transitional structures (built at the turn of the century when architects were transitioning from designing iron-framed buildings to steel-framed ones).
But Fish Island was badly bombed in the Second World War. By 1960, housing areas had been replaced by warehouses, making the area purely industrial.
By the 1990s, most factories on the Island were used for waste disposal and recycling.
Home of artists and innovation
As industry moved out of Fish Island, the artists moved in. In the 90s it had the highest density of artists’ studios in Europe. Out of the 750 studios, one was owned Op Art legend, Bridget Riley.
After artists began to be priced out of Fish Island, a partnership was set up in 2014 between tech hub, The Trampery, and the Barbican Centre, called Fish Island Labs. The project allows for between 40 and 50 people to share low-cost workspace for ten months.
Slowly, warehouses turned from factories to studios to living space.
In April, Hackney Wick and Fish Island Creative Quarter, home to nearly 250 artist studios and more than 100 creative businesses, was awarded a £50,000 grant from the Mayor of London in order to help make it a Creative Enterprise Zone. The scheme ensures artists aren’t priced out.
Also on the Island is Stour Space, a community hub with coffee shop, gallery and studio space, and Truman’s Brewery. Another long standing member of the community is H Forman & Son, a fish smoker who have been based in the East End for over a hundred years.
The legacy of the Olympics and the battle to keep Swan Warf
In 2005, Roach Point pedestrian and cycle bridge was built across the Hertford Union canal, halving the journey time from Fish Island to Hackney Wick station, and paving the way for more residential buildings on the Island.
The same year, London won the bid to host the Olympics, increasing the amount of development in the area and boosting the house prices.
In 2014, planning permission was granted for 580 homes and 3,000m2 of commercial space at Neptune Wharf, Fish Island. Now, there are more than 4,500 being built in Fish Island and Hackney Wick.
In 2008, Swan Wharf was included in the Fish Island Conservation Area by Tower Hamlets Council. The stable block there was built between 1906 and 1912, but was earmarked to be demolished in 2016.
After thousands of signatures, the building and the yard below was preserved and allowed instead to be used for creative purposes.
Now at Swan Wharf is a 500-person outdoor venue with jazz performances, DJs, World Cup matches, food and drinks, as well as space for artists and creatives.
With special thanks to Ted Murphy for the photographs.
If you liked this, why not see our gallery of old maps of the area.
If you enjoyed reading this fishy tale, you might enjoy reading about Roman Road’s Del Downey, from the oldest fishmonger family in the East End.
Can you help us?
As a not-for-profit media organisation using ethical journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or membership scheme as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
If a fraction of the local 40,000 residents donated two pounds a month to Roman Road LDN it would be enough for our editorial team to serve the area full time and be beholden only to the community. Media is accountable to those who finance it. We want to be accountable to readers. Not to corporate sponsors, not to local government. To you. A pound at a time, we believe we can get there.