History of Canary Wharf

Updated: Apr 11

Canary Wharf has a lot of history behind it. The area now known as the financial district of London has been much more. In medieval times it used to be called Stephany Marsh and only later, in the 16th century took the name of Isle of Dogs. The reason behind this name is not clear and there are plenty of theories. Some affirm there were once royal kennels in the area, and some say that the name was given to the area because of the number of dead dogs that washed up on its banks (we prefer the former theory).

Most of this area was a desolated marshland for a very long time and the few people who lived there were mostly farmers and fishermen.

Life started to change at the end of the 16th century when in the west side of the Isle of Dogs, seven windmills were erected for grinding corn. That’s when the area took the name of Millwall.


Old Map - Millwall & Isle Dogs - the 7 mills circled in red

We are at the beginning of the 18th Century when the landscape started to visibly change. The windmills disappeared and new factories began to pop up in their place on the banks of the river Thames to allow ships to be unloaded.

It was during this time that Millwall was transformed from a rather isolated and unknown peninsula of farmland and mills to the heart of London’s ship building industry.

Seeing the need for expanded docks, a group of sea merchants sought permission to build docks on the north side of the island. By 1802, the West India Docks were open for business. Probably the greatest civil engineering structure of its day in England it became soon after one the world’s busiest shipping ports.

The West India Docks in 1900 - PLA collection / Museum of London

Ships from every corner of the world would navigate in and out of the Docklands, importing raw materials such as tobacco, timber, and animal skins.

Historians report that at the beginning of the 1900’s more than 30,000 people were working in the Docklands.

At that time around a third of all of Britain’s overseas industry passed through the Docklands. Unfortunately that led directly to the Isle of Dogs becoming one of the main targets of the German bombing raids during the Second World War. Nine miles of the city’s dockland areas were destroyed by fire alongside thousands of homes.

After the War many council estates started to construct new residential buildings to house all of the people who had lost their homes following the bombings, and most of the Island reverted back to desolate land.

The Canary Wharf of today began in the 80’s when G Ware Travelstead, an American property developer, invested in a project aiming to transform the island into “back office” for all of the growing companies operating in the more pricey City of London.

The project, later sold to the Canadian company Olympia & York, started to take form in 1988 and the first building was completed few years later: One Canada Square. With its distinctive pyramid pinnacle reaching 235m into the heavens, until 2009 it was Britain’s tallest skyscraper, and still now remains an icon of London’s docklands regeneration.


One Canada Square in 1992 - Adamson Associates Architects

Those are the same years that saw the construction of the London City Airport, just around the corner, and also the first ever automated light railway transit system to East London and Canary Wharf (DLR).

In 1995 a very wealthy international consortium bought control and four years later Canary Wharf went public with the name of Canary Wharf Limited.

This is only the beginning of the ever-growing financial district with it’s ever-changing skyline.


Alex & Matteo




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