When London Became An Island

It is impossible to miss the bulk of the old CHN factory, but easy to overlook a series of tiny sculptures on the towpath wall right opposite. They are by Jonesy, a bronze caster who works from a studio in Tower Hamlets. His miniature works may also be seen on the Regents Canal and in other parts of the East End too. The artist’s bronze works sometimes allude to environmental causes - fracking being a particular target - but often just seem rather haunting in their own right. In any event the sculptures are always intriguing and thought provoking although many, like 1, have have long disappeared.

Walking on a little further will take you under Skew bridge, so called because that is exactly what it is - a bridge that carries Old Ford Road obliquely across the canal. It was shown like this in James Pennethorne’s plan of Victoria Park (2) but the awkward skew predates the creation of the park (the original plan is kept in the National Archives at Kew).

Passing under Skew bridge will bring you to the boundary of ‘Vicky’ park. This, eastern, part was once home to the local Lido, an outdoor pool which, sadly, was demolished over twenty years ago. The Forum (or For ‘em and Agin ‘em as it was sometimes known), a kind of East End Speaker’s Corner, was also located in this area but has long fallen into disuse.

Rather than bricks and mortar the towpath is now bounded by railings, which are of quite some vintage. They clearly escaped the large scale metal collections that took place in the early years of the Second World War, when there was a great drive to turn scrap iron into munitions. At first the surrender of railings which, according to recycling experts, had a special value in the manufacture of ships’ cables, chains and other fittings, was voluntary and many London boroughs offered those in public ownership. Some commentators applauded this. The influential left-wing writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestly, for example, considered railings as ugly thickets of iron, observing that London parks had miles of railings around them. He also complained about The little gardens in the squares, which might be open and pleasant, are severely railed in, as if there were tigers lurking in their bushes.


Tigers or not compulsion soon arrived. As the need for scrap metal grew requisitioning became necessary and in October 1941 many local newspapers informed their readers that unless railings were needed for safety reasons or had special artistic merit or of historic interest then they could be legally taken away. Passions ran high about the change and the Daily Mirror had a report about one irate owner marching into the office of a borough surveyor, slamming down a pistol and exclaiming ‘That is for the bloke who is going to take my railings’. I think we can safely say he lost his railings anyway.


The canal side railings of Victoria Park were clearly needed for safety reasons even if they were not regarded as having artistic or historic interest and so survived. They were cut by neither oxy-acetylene torch nor hacksaw but over the post-war years many were gradually divided and, at some points, actually encased by trees and even though some of the trees have been cut down the struggle between nature and fabricated iron clearly goes on (3). Where repairs or replacement of the old railings has taken place the original spear head or sharp-point tops have been replaced by modern flat tops, for which anyone who has tried to climb over them is no doubt grateful.


Although Skew bridge has, of necessity, been strengthened over the years and must bear little resemblance to the original construction, the next one on the line of the Cut is a scheduled ancient monument. Three Colts Bridge (4) dates from 1830, the year when the waterway was opened. The elegant central metal deck, which now carries foot and pedal power traffic to the park from Gunmakers Lane, was probably brought to the works in pieces and then assembled on site. Go on to the bridge and look over the side and you can still see the nuts used when bolting on the parapet. It was one of seven similar bridges that initially spanned the canal.


The bridge plaque (5) itself is something of an historical artefact too as it dates from the period when the Liberal Democrats were in power in Tower Hamlets. During those eight years, between 1986 and 1994, the borough was divided into seven Neighbourhoods, one of which was Bow and which developed its own heritage trail.


Gunmakers Lane is a reminder of an industry that was established on adjacent land in 1866. 1866 was a significant date in the development of small arms. Much of the credit for the victory of the Prussian Army over the Austrians in that year was due to the use of the needle guns, a kind of breach loading rifle far superior to the old-fashioned muzzle loader. For many years this type of weapon was commemorated in a nearby pub on Roman Road, called the Needle Gun. Here, presumably, knowledgeable workers could drink as they talked shop and gave their opinions on the latest development in armaments. No heritage plaque ever graced the front of the Needle Gun (although the building remains) but close to the junction of Roman Road and Gunmakers Lane is one which commemorates another pub, The Gunmakers Arms, although it is on the wall of a modern block of flats.


The Gunmakers Arms was no longer being used as a pub when, in 1915, it was bought by the pacifist Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst and renamed the Mother’s Arms. There was then a radical change of use as it became a kind of welfare centre, the East London Federation of Suffragettes setting up a baby clinic, staffed by trained nurses and a crèche. The childcare provision was of immense benefit to women who could then take the opportunity to take paid employment, meagre though the wages might be. Click on button to the left to find out more about the Suffragettes in this part of the East End. A fine picture of Sylvia Pankhurst may be seen on the gable wall of the Lord Morpeth pub (6). To see this turn right after leaving Gunmakers Lane and walk a couple of hundred yards along Old Ford Road.


The arms factory itself, which mostly produced rifles, was owned by the London Small Arms Company. Its main competitor was based in Birmingham. Although the quality of the LSA guns were prized, the company was never able to complete in quantity or to diversify because of restriction on space. Consequently, there are no LSA bicycles or fabulous cafe racers like the Birmingham Small Arms Gold Star. Around the time LSA was wound up in the 1930s BSA was progressing to be the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. Indeed the company was arguably the largest company on the globe at one stage but this did not stop it from going bust in the early 70s. It was not too big to fail.


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